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Domestic field workers at odds with labor contractor

Domestic field workers at odds with labor contractor

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July 27, 2010 4:45 PM

Seven domestic farm workers who allegedly lost their jobs to foreign guest workers and were left stranded in fields hours from their home last month while their company went to the Mexico border to pick up foreign guest workers have filed a lawsuit against their employer.

The U.S. workers, who are legal permanent residents from San Luis Rio Colorado, Son., filed the lawsuit against their employer, S&H Farm Labor of Parker, in United States District Court.

The Yuma Sun attempted to contact S&H Farm Labor for comment on the article but was told no one at its office could speak to the media.

According to the lawsuit, in June of 2010, the workers were driven from San Luis, Ariz., in a bus owned by S&H to fields in Dateland, nearly 80 miles away. After they had spent the day harvesting melons they found themselves stranded in the fields, with no way to return home.

The seven field workers are being represented by Anna Dahlquist and Pamela Bridge, attorneys at Community Legal Services, a not-for-profit civil law firm based in Arizona, which has an office in San Luis.

“Normally, at the end of the day, the workers wait for the busses to come pick them up,” Dahlquist said. On this particular day, she said, the bus never came. The group waited until dark and at some point started walking.

Dahlquist said the seven workers were informed by their foreman that S&H had decided to send the busses to the border to pick up foreign guest workers rather than provide the U.S. workers with return transportation back to San Luis.

“They were told the busses were sent to Nogales to pick up the H2-A workers,” Dahlquist said.

The U.S. workers were forced to walk several miles at night along the highway until they found transportation back to San Luis, Dahlquist said.

“They walked for several miles along the highway until they came to a convenience store or gas station and started calling family members for rides,” Dahlquist said. “The labor contractor, at some point, showed after being contacted by one of the workers and said he give them rides.”

Dahlquist said the next day, the seven field workers were informed by S&H that their positions had been filled by the H2-A foreign workers. A short time later, the workers contacted Community Legal Services in San Luis, Ariz.

“These U.S. workers are willing to work in an Arizona summer picking watermelon. They count on these (low) wages to support their families,” stated Pamela Bridge. “S&H cost these workers weeks of pay.”

To protect the wages and working conditions of the domestic agricultural workforce under the H-2A program, which governs the recruitment of foreign labor, federal law requires employers to extend a preference to qualified U.S. farm workers before turning to foreign farm labor.

If the employer can prove to the Department of Labor that it lacks adequate domestic labor, only then do the laws allow employers to bring in foreign labor under the H-2A program

“S&H blatantly violated the H-2A program by firing U.S. workers in favor of foreign labor,” Bridge said. “We are concerned because S&H has a history of violating provisions of the H-2A program, yet the Department of Labor and the Department of Economic Security continue to allow them to bring in foreign labor in lieu of domestic workers.”

“In this economic climate, it is difficult to understand why the government would allow guest workers to take the jobs of U.S. workers,” Bridge noted.

In the lawsuit filed by Community Legal Services in federal district court, the workers are asking for statutory, compensatory and punitive damages under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act in addition to injunctive relief against S&H to prevent future violations.

“Ultimately we would like to see employers following the laws instead of having lawsuits filed,” Dahlquist said

James Gilbert can be reached at jgilbert@yumasun.com or 539-6854.