HSPRD and SMLS reached a settlement of $390,000 in a suit brought on behalf of 14 Mexican guestworkers who had alleged abusive working conditions, discrimination, and retaliation at a Tennessee tomato farm.
Fourteen Mexican guestworkers today resolved their lawsuit against Fish Farms, a Newport, Tennessee tomato farm, by reaching a $390,000 settlement with the farm. The workers alleged that after they complained about conditions at the farm, including ongoing pesticide exposure, the farm owners retaliated against them and “privately deported” them back to Mexico in violation of federal and state laws. The workers came to Fish Farms in 2010 through the federal government’s guestworker program, which allows employers to hire foreign workers if sufficient domestic labor cannot be found.
The workers had complained to the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) about their working conditions. The lawsuit alleged that in retaliation for their complaints, when USDOL sent investigators to meet with workers, farm owners descended upon the workers’ housing brandishing firearms, in an attempt to prevent the workers from assisting with the federal investigation. The lawsuit also alleged that the owners then falsely accused one worker of aggravated assault, for which he spent several days in jail. That charge was later dropped.
Two weeks later, workers used their cellphone cameras to document the farm spraying pesticides in fields where other workers were laboring and dangerously close to worker housing. In response, the lawsuit alleges, Fish Farms brutally retaliated by firing the workers en masse—the farm owners stormed the workers’ housing, kicked in a trailer door, swore and cursed and yelled racial slurs, and snatched workers’ phones from their hands. They then forced the workers onto a bus where they were confined for several hours until the farm brought them to a bus station and instructed them to return to Mexico.
“Retaliation is so rampant that workers often would rather withstand unlawful conditions than report abuse and have no job at all,” said the workers’ attorney, Caitlin Berberich. “Hopefully our clients’ success here will show other workers and employers that substandard working conditions will not be tolerated and protections exist for workers who speak out against them.”
Following the workers’ complaints and termination, USDOL conducted an investigation into Fish Farms’ labor practices. In 2012, USDOL fined Fish Farms more than $205,000 for violations of agricultural labor laws, including $50,727 for back wages owed to 59 workers. USDOL also found multiple health and safety violations related to the farm’s worker housing.
Fish Farms brought the workers to the United States through the H-2A guestworker visa program. Among other things, the program requires employers to provide adequate wages and safe and sanitary housing. This not only protects agricultural workers but also disincentivizes employers from A project of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid displacing U.S. workers with a less expensive foreign workforce. Fish Farms had certified to the USDOL that they could not find workers in Tennessee and that they would abide by the labor laws governing the H-2A program.
The workers were represented by Southern Migrant Legal Services and Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym, Ltd.