Litigation, Pesticides, Wages

Migrant Workers File Lawsuit Against Food Company

From KRGV.com, Kirk Chaisson , 16 Aug 2011.

MCALLEN, TX – Dozens of Valley workers claim Pioneer Hi-Bred International violated their federal rights when it underpaid them and forced them to work in fields that were being sprayed with pesticides.

The 40 workers filed a lawsuit against the company in a federal court. They’re not the first ones either. The company has faced several lawsuits dating back to 1979.

Every year, thousands of migrant workers travel north looking for work. Their jobs are hard and their pay is low.

Maria Ayala and 39 other workers went to work for Pioneer Hi-Bred International in Indiana about two years ago. They all worked in the field doing what’s called corn detasseling, which is part of the harvesting process.The group claims their bosses forced them to work in the fields while those fields were being sprayed with pesticides.

“Two days later, we started getting some rashes on the body. And we told them, but they didn’t pay attention until one of them got real, real bad,” says Ayala.

Under federal law, agricultural migrant farm workers don’t get some of the protections that people in other industries do.

No overtime pay is provided. Ayala and the others say they were told they’d be paid about $75 for each acre they detasselled. Most workers finished about two acres a day. Instead of being paid by the acre, they say they were paid minimum wage. After the first week they only received $113.

“After all those hard working days we had, waking up early getting all wet, feeling sticky for 113, it’s not fair,” says Ayala.

CHANNEL 5 NEWS checked court records and found that Pioneer International has been sued by South Texas workers at least 15 times dating back to 1979. In some cases, the company and workers reached a settlement agreement with confidential terms. We found this case filed in federal court in McAllen.

Several workers claim they were not paid for work they did in Iowa in 2007. Last year, a judge ordered the company and a recruiter to pay a total of $13,800 which was divided up among the group. Some were paid a little more than $2,000 while minors received around $400.

Attorney Edward Sandoval says the laws are stacked against the migrant workers.

Plaintiffs cannot recover punitive damages. They’re only allowed to recover the amount of money they would have been paid in the first place.

Sandoval says the fines for breaking the law are small.

“As in for the agricultural act, it was passed in the early 80s, and statutory damages are frozen to what they were back in the 80s – zero to $500 per violation. There’s no stepping up because of inflation or passage of time,” explains Sandoval.

Pioneer has a plant in Weslaco which is why the workers can file lawsuits against the company in federal courts in South Texas.

The company is headquartered near Des Moines, Iowa. They released the following statement:

Because litigation is currently pending between TRLA and Pioneer, we believe the litigation is the correct forum to provide specific comment with respect to the allegations raised by TRLA. Pioneer denies the allegations and believes they are unfounded. We do have a long-standing, successful history of employing agricultural workers to work for Pioneer in Indiana and other states.

Pioneer is not the only defendant in these types of lawsuits. In April, Remington Seeds from Indiana reached a settlement with 91 people for work they did from 2006 to 2008. The company paid out more than $220,000 to settle the case. This averages out to about $1,500 per worker after attorney’s fees.

While Remington does not have a plant in Texas, a judge ruled that workers can sue them in Texas federal courts because the company maintained contact with the state.

Pioneer filed a response to the lawsuit on June 17. The company denies most of the allegations the workers are making. They also say any of the workers’ claims for work-related injuries, including pesticide exposure are barred under Indiana law. They say instead of suing, the workers should file claims with Indiana’s workers compensation program.

Source and video report: KRGV.com, “Migrant Workers File Lawsuit Against Food Company” by Kirk Chaisson , 16 Aug 2011.

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