Stantonsburg farm workers receive settlement

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Substandard housing, lack of medical care, illegal pay and constant threats are just a few of the conditions 13 migrant farmworkers reportedly endured, but a federal settlement has provided some restitution to the Mexican residents.

Legal Aid of North Carolina recently released the details of a $75,000 settlement involving three labor contractors from Stantonsburg: Cirila Garcia-Pineda; her daughter, Marisa Garcia-Pineda; and her stepson, Ofelio Garcia. Thirteen workers were recruited from Mexico by the trio through the federal H-2A visa program, which allows employers to hire foreign workers for temporary agricultural work under certain conditions. Farm labor contractors like the Garcias recruit, transport, oversee and often house workers on behalf of the agricultural companies.

In the August 2017 complaint, legal aid farmworker unit managing attorney Lori Johnson and supervising attorney Caitlin Ryland said the reality of life in eastern North Carolina was a stark contrast from the picture of a lucrative job opportunity painted during recruitment in towns near Putla de Guerrero and Cutzamala.

Starting in 2015, the workers said the Garcias charged them recruitment fees that are prohibited under the federal program; failed to pay required hourly wages; lied to them about chances of staying in the country; failed to reimburse the workers’ visa and travel expenses to come from Mexico to North Carolina; housed them in substandard housing; deprived them of workers’ compensation coverage; impeded access to medical care; and retained their Social Security cards.

A news release also said the Garcias, “used threats and coercive action to try to confiscate their passports and made a loud, public display of physically threatening another worker who dared to ask for his wages.”

“This is what labor trafficking looks like,” said Ryland, who is a member of North Carolina’s Human Trafficking Commission. “Sex trafficking might be better known, but labor trafficking is just as pernicious, and it’s all too prevalent, especially in industries where labor contracting services are used.”

Officials said Garcia-Pineda had worked as a farm labor contractor for years, but her business was in trouble and she turned to her daughter, who was a paralegal in Greenville at the time. Garcia-Pineda has been investigated by state and federal authorities and was on the verge of losing the certification required to be a farm labor contractor. The paralegal reportedly submitted applications required to hire workers through the federal program on behalf of her mother and portrayed herself as the sole contractor despite working with her mother and stepbrother as on-site farm labor contractors.

“North Carolina’s agricultural industry is one of the largest users of the H-2A program,” said Johnson. “H-2A workers are particularly vulnerable, despite the protections guaranteed to them by the program. They are often recruited from parts of the world with fewer economic opportunities, rarely speak English, typically are unaware of their legal rights, and they depend on their employers for nearly everything: housing, mail, access to food, medical care, houses of worship, information ... almost everything. With their visas tethered to one employer, the H-2A worker can’t just leave and work lawfully for a different employer.

“There are always individuals out there who are willing to exploit these vulnerabilities for their own gain.”

According to the settlement, the trio agreed to pay $75,000 in damages to the workers, but the defendants denied liability. All three contractors also received lifelong bans from participating in the H-2A program.

“Our clients wanted justice, and we are glad that we were able to win some measure of it for them,” Johnson said.

Officials declined to give details about the workers and whether they returned to Mexico.

“I am honored to have had the opportunity to represent this group of workers who bravely stood up in solidarity against those that wronged them,” Ryland said. “Our clients hope that this settlement will help them and their families move forward from this experience and that shedding light on what happened will protect others vulnerable to the same exploitation.”

Visit legalaidnc.org and farmworkerlanc.org for more information about Legal Aid’s work with migrant and seasonal farmworkers.