From AJC.com, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jeremy Redmon, 5 Aug 2011.
[Atlanta, GA] — A large South Georgia vegetable farm has been favoring foreign guest laborers over U.S. workers, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has found.
In a decision released last month, the EEOC said Hamilton Growers/Southern Valley Fruit and Vegetable Inc. engaged in a “pattern or practice of regularly denying work hours and assigning less favorable” work to U.S. workers in favor of foreigners participating in the federal H-2A guest worker program. The EEOC also said the Norman Park-based farm showed a pattern of firing U.S. workers and replacing them with H-2A employees.
The farm denied the allegations and accused the U.S. workers of violating attendance rules, loitering and failing to keep up with the work, EEOC records show. Hamilton also said all its workers are guaranteed the same wages but some earn more because they work faster.
An attorney for the farm said it denies discriminating against employees or breaking the law and is requesting the EEOC back up its conclusions.
“My client has been a fair employer and good citizen of the South Georgia area for many years and does not take the conclusions of the EEOC lightly,” William McCalley, the farm’s attorney, wrote in an email. “Therefore, a full and complete disclosure by the EEOC of the facts supporting its position is necessary before my client can make an informed decision as to its next course of action in this matter.”
An EEOC spokesman in Washington declined to comment on the case, citing federal privacy laws.
The EEOC’s findings stem from complaints that dozens of U.S. workers filed in 2009 and 2010 with the help of the Georgia Legal Services Program, said Leah Lotto, a staff attorney with the program’s farmworker rights division. The EEOC has invited the workers and the farm to try to reach a negotiated settlement. A meeting is scheduled for Tuesday.
The H-2A program requires employers to prove not enough qualified U.S. workers are available before bringing in foreign nationals to do seasonal work. Employers must also show that hiring the guest workers won’t harm the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.
Hamilton is the largest employer of guest workers in Georgia, employing about 400 through the H-2A program, according to Georgia Legal Services.
Georgia’s $68.8 billion agricultural industry — the state’s largest — depends heavily on migrant workers, many of whom come from Mexico, Guatemala and other Latin American countries. Some South Georgia farmers have complained in recent months of severe labor shortages. Many blame those shortages on Georgia’s tough new law targeting illegal immigration, complaining it is scaring away the migrant Hispanic workers they depend on.