From KnoxNews.com, KnoxvilleBiz, Ed Marcum, 13 Apr 2011.
Fifteen Mexican guestworkers have filed a lawsuit in federal court against Newport-based tomato grower Fish Farms, alleging a series of abuses including spraying pesticides near their trailers, subjecting them to inhumane working conditions, threatening them with firearms, firing them en masse and other violations of civil rights and labor laws.
Southern Migrant Legal Services filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Greeneville on behalf of the workers, who say they were employed at Fish Farms through the H-2A guestworker visa program. Southern Migrant Legal Services, which is based in Nashville, provides free employment-related legal services to eligible farmworkers who have worked in Tennessee.
In the lawsuit, they allege that Fish Farms repeatedly exposed them to pesticides, spraying near the trailers and in the fields while they worked there. The lawsuit says the workers were kept in crowded, run-down trailers and were provided no potable water. Workers claim that when they complained to state and federal employees, Fish Farm supervisors retaliated by falsely accusing a worker of aggravated assault, surrounding the workers’ dwellings while brandishing firearms and finally firing them en masse and detaining them for hours on a bus and trying to force them to return to Mexico.
Chicago-based law firm Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick & Dym Ltd. is representing the plaintiffs. The lawsuit mentions no dollar amount, but plaintiffs are seeking compensation for lost wages, emotional distress and other punitive damages as deemed appropriate by the court.
Owners of Fish Farms referred questions to their attorney, Knoxville lawyer Jay Mader, who said he did not want to comment.
“My client has not yet been served and Fish Farms intends to make its response through the proper legal channels,” Mader said.
Mel Fowler-Green, of Southern Migrant Legal Services, said the main issue is that the plaintiffs became targets of retaliation.
“Our lawsuit is primarily a retaliation claims lawsuit,” she said. “After they made these complaints they were fired in retaliation for making the complaints.”
Fowler-Green said the workers were kept in trailers that were bug-infested and lacked screens to keep flies and mosquitoes out. They lived next to the fields where they worked. They had no laundry facilities and had to wash their clothes in a river. The lawsuit claims Fish Farms failed to meet minimum employment standards for the guestworker program.
“Instead, believing they had a captive labor force that was Hispanic and Mexican and could not or would not complain or enforce the law, Defendants flagrantly violated federal H-2A standards,” the lawsuit states.
The plaintiffs complained to the U.S. Department of Labor, and when officials arrived at the farm to investigate, the employers began their retaliation, the lawsuit claims. When investigators arrived, one of the plaintiffs, holding a knife he was using to make a sandwich, came out to see what was going on and employers had him arrested for aggravated assault. They then surrounded the plaintiffs’ trailers, brandishing firearms, according to Fowler-Green.
Two weeks later, Fish Farms fired all the plaintiffs after some of them tried to take cellphone pictures of spraying taking place, according to the lawsuit. Fish Farms also put everyone on a bus and drove them to Morristown to put them on a commercial bus back to Mexico, Fowler-Green said.
She noted that the lawsuit was filed the day before the U.S. House of Representatives was scheduled to review the guestworkers program. Today at 10 a.m. the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider “The H-2A Visa Program: Meeting the Growing Needs of American Agriculture?”
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Miguel Angel Cristobel Lopez, Magdeleno Lorenzo Roman Perez, Octavio Carlos Baro Romero, Arturo Baro Romero, Roberto Calvo Rosales, Mauro Ferrer Santiago, Abraham Ocampo Bahena, Viciente Pedraza Reza, Francisco Javier Rogel Bedolla, Luis Roberto Rogel Hernandez, Ismael Ruiz Zeferino, Giovanni Sanchez Hernandez, Miguel Angel Sierra Everastico, Guillermo Ruiz Zeferino and Juan Calderon Lagunas. Defendants include Jimmy Carroll Fish, Walter Jackson Fish and Christine Fish Gilliam, all doing business as Fish Farms.
Business writer Ed Marcum may be reached at 865-342-6267.