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"Stolen" Back Wages Paid to NC Farmworkers in Class-Action Lawsuit

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Members of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee filed a class-action lawsuit against a North Carolina farm labor contractor over stolen wages.(FLOC)
Members of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee filed a class-action lawsuit against a North Carolina farm labor contractor over stolen wages.(FLOC)
 By Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC - Producer, Contact
February 5, 2021

RALEIGH, N.C. - Several major North Carolina growers have agreed to compensate a group of seasonal farmworkers for stolen wages and other expenses in settlements totaling more than $160,000.

OJ Smith Farms, Reynolds American and national nursery chain Greenleaf all relied on a farm-labor contractor who lied to workers, withheld pay, and didn't reimburse travel expenses.

The lawsuit was filed by 18 members of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

Plaintiff Jorge Bautista arrived in the state in 2019 with the promise of work. Through a translator, the Mexican citrus farmer and seasonal farmworker said he wasn't reimbursed for his travel, was forced to purchase poor-quality food, and was misled about the amount of work available.

"That is the reason you go there, to work - and well, there wasn't," said Bautista. "And that was why we decided to start the fight, to improve this whole situation."

Experts say cases like Bautista's are common among workers in the US on temporary, employer-sponsored H-2A visas.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor investigated about one thousand cases of agricultural wage theft, according to the Economic Policy Institute. More than 200,000 workers traveled to the U.S. that year on H-2A visas, and some of their advocates believe wage-theft incidents are much higher.

Bautista said winning the case and being paid back his wages and travel money should inspire other migrant workers to fight for their rights.

"Because many people in the U.S, as it happened to me at the beginning, I was afraid to speak and all that," said Bautista. "But all that can be improved, it can be solved. They just have to speak out, they just have to decide and come together. Change can be possible."

The president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee has said he's committed to helping the more than 200 North Carolina workers who were wage theft victims collect the money owed to them.

Disclosure: Farm Labor Organizing Committee contributes to our fund for reporting on Livable Wages/Working Families, Rural/Farming, Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
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