The lawsuit underscores the vulnerability of guest workers in the popular H-2A visa program.
Every year, tens of thousands of guest workers travel to the United States on temporary visas to live and work on farms during the growing season. Farmers who apply to host guest workers through the H-2A program make all sorts of promises to them: They’re supposed to pay a certain wage (never below the federal minimum), guarantee work for a certain number of hours per week, provide housing and transportation to and from the worksite, and pay for transportation to and from the workers’ home country.
In practice, though, those commitments aren’t honored, according to a new class action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of more than 2,000 migrant workers alleging rampant wage theft and other labor violations.
The lawsuit alleges Lowry Farms Inc., a major farm labor contractor based in Arkansas, failed to reimburse workers hired to plant sugarcane in Louisiana for travel and visa expenses and underreported the number of hours they worked. As a result, workers were paid subminimum wages from 2016 to 2019.
The suit is filed on behalf of employees Bernabé Antonio Benito and Jesus Jimenez Martinez as well as thousands of other H-2A employees of Lowry Farms who planted sugarcane in Louisiana in recent growing seasons. According to the complaint, the plaintiffs spent their own money to obtain their visas, traveling to Monterrey, Mexico, and staying overnight to complete the process, then paid for their own travel from Mexico to Louisiana. Once they began working, their contract stipulated that they should have been paid between $10.38 and $11.33 per hour depending on the year.