Migrant workers cheated of wages & deported from US!

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March in support of immigration rights for migrant workers

GERADO Santiago-Hernandez was a worker at Four Star Greenhouse in Carleton, Michigan. A lawsuit filed in June 2020, on behalf of him and other migrant workers from Mexico, alleges he was cheated of his wages and tricked into being detained by federal immigrant agents and removed to Mexico.

In a lawsuit filed last week in US District Court in Detroit, seven migrant workers from Mexico, including Reyes-Trujillo, allege that Four Star Greenhouse and the agent it used to hire them violated labour, wage and trafficking laws in 2017 and 2018.
Reyes-Trujillo had come to the United States legally to work at Four Star Greenhouse in Carleton through a temporary agricultural visa known as H-2A.
But he said his dreams were crushed after he and other workers were cheated out of their pay despite working long hours.
After they complained, he said that they were lured and tricked by their employer into being detained by federal immigration agents in a Walmart parking lot, and eventually sent back to Mexico.
The legal complaint says: ‘They were forced to work hundreds of hours without pay.
‘They were not paid for many weeks of work, leaving them without money for food and other necessities.
‘…When the Plaintiffs stood up to their traffickers, complaining to Four Star and its recruiting agent about their exploitation, the agent delivered them to immigration authorities to have them deported and to avoid paying the Plaintiffs for their labour.’
Attorneys for the workers say the case represents a broader problem with abuse in the H-2A visa system and of other migrant farm workers in Michigan and other states.
Last year, there were 9,096 agricultural workers in Michigan with H-2A visas, the seventh-largest recipient of H-2A workers among all states.
Ben Botts, an attorney with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (Centre for Migrant Rights) who helped file the lawsuit, commented: ‘This is one of the most egregious cases I’ve seen of workers standing up for their rights’ who were retaliated against. ‘These workers were raising concerns that were legally protected.’
The lawsuit was filed against Four Star and its president, Thomas Smith, by the Centre and two other migrant advocacy groups: Michigan Immigrant Rights Centre and Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan.
Based in Monroe County, Four Star has more than 100 employees and earns $18 million in sales a year, selling young plants and finished crops across the US to garden retailers, landscapers, retail growers, and wholesale growers, the complaint said.
It’s the top supplier of ‘Proven Winners’ described as a ‘breakthrough brand’ on its website.
In a statement provided through its attorney, Michael Stroster, Four Star denied the lawsuit’s claims as ‘untrue’.
According to the lawsuit, in 2017 and 2018, the workers – all from Mexico – were offered a chance to migrate to the US as temporary workers in various states, including Michigan.
They were ‘from rural, impoverished areas of Mexico where there are few opportunities for paid employment, and no opportunities that pay wages comparable to those promised under the H-2A programme,’ the complaint says. They ‘travelled to the United States at considerable personal expense to support their families.’
Reyes-Trujillo was eager to find work in the US because he said he can earn more in a day in the US than a week in Mexico.
Four Star relied on a farm labour contractor based in Florida, Vasquez Citrus & Hauling, to recruit workers.
Reyes-Trujillo and the six others were in Michigan from December 2017 to June 2018 under a contract that was to pay them $12.75 an hour for 36 hours per week at the greenhouse from January 2018 to the end of July that year, the lawsuit states.
But Reyes-Trujillo said he only received a few paycheques before they stopped. In some cases, the cheques from the recruiter bounced.
Adding to their financial problems was that they were not reimbursed for their travel and visa costs, facing a debt with growing interest.
The workers say they were also lied to about their visa status, being told by the recruiter that their visas were being extended before they arrived in Michigan. But their visas had actually already expired by the time they arrived in Michigan.
They ‘were so desperate for money for basic necessities, including food, with no means of returning home to Mexico, that they had little choice but to work at Four Star,’ the lawsuit says.
There they worked primarily in the shipping department, the lawsuit says, ‘choosing and transporting plants from the greenhouse to the shipping department, where they ticketed plants with shipping code labels and packed them for shipping around the country. Other duties involved building boxes, sweeping, and trimming plants.’
The lawsuit states that they were made to work more than 60 hours a week and their living conditions were ‘challenging’.
Reyes-Trujillo said he lived in a one-bedroom apartment nearby the greenhouse along with seven other residents: six people in the living room and two in the bedroom.
They ‘were supposed to be paid $12.75 per hour, on a weekly basis, but were not paid on time, not paid consistently, and were not paid at all for hundreds of hours of work at Four Star.’
And they ‘were paid with cheques that bounced repeatedly, to the point that the store where the Plaintiffs would cash their cheques began refusing to cash them.’
Struggling to pay for food and in debt, the workers complained to the recruiter and Four Star.
That’s when the retaliation and threats started, they allege.
The workers said they were threatened with being sent back to Mexico and being blacklisted from working in the US again under the visa programme.
According to the lawsuit, on March 21, 2018, the recruiting agent lured them out of the Chestnut Hills Apartments complex where they lived, telling them they needed to leave because of a housing inspection.
They were told ‘ a false claim’ by the recruiter that ‘they were taking them shopping at Walmart while inspectors came to their apartments, and assured them that they had nothing to worry about.’
They boarded a bus and arrived at the Walmart parking lot, which turned out to contain immigration agents.
‘As soon as we got off the bus, there was a patrol waiting for us,’ Reyes-Trujillo said. ‘The patrol was telling us on loudspeakers something we didn’t understand.’
They were arrested and taken to the Calhoun County jail, where they stayed for about two months before being deported to Mexico.
The workers can’t recall whether the federal immigration agents were with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Spokesmen for the two agencies in Michigan would not comment on the lawsuit.
The workers weren’t even able to get their personal belongings before they had to leave America.
The legal complaint states  that ‘when they were detained, nearly all their personal belongings – including their clothing and personal documents such as passports, visas, and birth certificates – were left at the Chestnut Hills Apartments.’
It adds that the ‘recruiting agent never returned their belongings, and (the workers) never recovered most of these items and have not been able to afford to replace them.’
Maria Perales Sanchez, from the Centre for Migrant Rights, said that employers often use contractors and agents to hire workers, and then try to avoid responsibility for how the workers may be mistreated. But the employers are aware of the abuses that are happening through the agents, she said.
The lawsuit alleges that Four Star chose Vasquez Citrus & Hauling despite its history of labour violations.
In March 2016, it was fined almost $22,000 by the US Department of Transportation for a bus crash that killed six workers being transported from Monroe, Michigan, back to Mexico. In 2018, the Department of Labour debarred Vasquez for three years from the H-2A programme.
In April, the Centre for Migrant Rights released a report titled ‘Ripe for Reform: Abuses of Agricultural Workers in the H-2A Programme’ which found that all of the 100 workers they interviewed had their rights violated – and 96% had three violations.
About one-third did not feel free to quit and one-third had restrictions on their mobility, the report said.
The abuses come as the number of H-2A visas has spiked.
In 2013, there were fewer than 100,000 H-2A positions nationally, with only 585 of them in Michigan.
Last year, there were 257,661 H-2A visa workers, with 9,096 of them in Michigan.
The importance of agricultural workers is especially crucial during the coronavirus crisis with concerns about food supplies, said the advocates.
‘These workers are critical, the backbone of what is keeping us alive,’ said Botts, one of the lawsuit’s attorneys.
He added that what happened in Michigan ‘is problematic of the kind of issues we see in the H-2A visa programme across the country.
‘There are problems when workers are tied to a single employer and their immigration status is tied to the employer. They can exploit workers because they know the workers are dependent on them for their legal status. This is a case where employers took full advantage of the workers.’
Gerardo Santiago Hernandez said: ‘We received so many false promises. It shouldn’t be possible for us to work so hard and not get paid as one should.’

  • The following is a statement from Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa last Wednesday July 1st about the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the revised North American trade deal that took effect that day.

‘For the first time today, Teamster truckers will have protections on the job that they haven’t had in at least a quarter century thanks to the enactment of this new trade pact.
‘The deal was possible due to the hard work of the Teamsters, a bipartisan collection of policymakers and allies who joined together and worked for years to get it done.
‘From the get-go, securing an overdue fix to the cross-border trucking provision that threatened highway safety and the competitiveness of the American trucking industry was essential for this union.
‘The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had made roadways less safe due to allowing older, Mexican-domiciled trucks on them.
‘But thanks to the hard work of House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and allies such as the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association and Advocates for Highway Safety, the USMCA adds a trade remedy to safeguard against material harm to US truckers.
‘We thank USTR Ambassador Bob Lighthizer and his team for working with us on this issue and we will continue to work closely with the agencies tasked with implementation of the “trucks fix” to ensure it is implemented vigorously and transparently.
‘Addressing cross-border trucking was necessary, but not sufficient, to securing the Teamsters’ support of the agreement. That came with new enforcement mechanisms that will protect worker rights in Mexico, especially the right to form independent unions.
‘The new labour chapter also includes the right to strike as an expression of the freedom of association and contains protections against workplace violence and for migrant workers.
‘USMCA also eliminated the investor state dispute settlement chapter from the original NAFTA that gave foreign corporations greater rights than American citizens.’
GERADO Santiago-Hernandez was a worker at Four Star Greenhouse in Carleton, Michigan. A lawsuit filed in June 2020, on behalf of him and other migrant workers from Mexico, alleges he was cheated of his wages and tricked into being detained by federal immigrant agents and removed to Mexico.
In a lawsuit filed last week in US District Court in Detroit, seven migrant workers from Mexico, including Reyes-Trujillo, allege that Four Star Greenhouse and the agent it used to hire them violated labour, wage and trafficking laws in 2017 and 2018.
Reyes-Trujillo had come to the United States legally to work at Four Star Greenhouse in Carleton through a temporary agricultural visa known as H-2A.
But he said his dreams were crushed after he and other workers were cheated out of their pay despite working long hours.
After they complained, he said that they were lured and tricked by their employer into being detained by federal immigration agents in a Walmart parking lot, and eventually sent back to Mexico.
The legal complaint says: ‘They were forced to work hundreds of hours without pay.
‘They were not paid for many weeks of work, leaving them without money for food and other necessities.
‘…When the Plaintiffs stood up to their traffickers, complaining to Four Star and its recruiting agent about their exploitation, the agent delivered them to immigration authorities to have them deported and to avoid paying the Plaintiffs for their labour.’
Attorneys for the workers say the case represents a broader problem with abuse in the H-2A visa system and of other migrant farm workers in Michigan and other states.
Last year, there were 9,096 agricultural workers in Michigan with H-2A visas, the seventh-largest recipient of H-2A workers among all states.
Ben Botts, an attorney with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (Centre for Migrant Rights) who helped file the lawsuit, commented: ‘This is one of the most egregious cases I’ve seen of workers standing up for their rights’ who were retaliated against. ‘These workers were raising concerns that were legally protected.’
The lawsuit was filed against Four Star and its president, Thomas Smith, by the Centre and two other migrant advocacy groups: Michigan Immigrant Rights Centre and Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan.
Based in Monroe County, Four Star has more than 100 employees and earns $18 million in sales a year, selling young plants and finished crops across the US to garden retailers, landscapers, retail growers, and wholesale growers, the complaint said.
It’s the top supplier of ‘Proven Winners’ described as a ‘breakthrough brand’ on its website.
In a statement provided through its attorney, Michael Stroster, Four Star denied the lawsuit’s claims as ‘untrue’.
According to the lawsuit, in 2017 and 2018, the workers – all from Mexico – were offered a chance to migrate to the US as temporary workers in various states, including Michigan.
They were ‘from rural, impoverished areas of Mexico where there are few opportunities for paid employment, and no opportunities that pay wages comparable to those promised under the H-2A programme,’ the complaint says. They ‘travelled to the United States at considerable personal expense to support their families.’
Reyes-Trujillo was eager to find work in the US because he said he can earn more in a day in the US than a week in Mexico.
Four Star relied on a farm labour contractor based in Florida, Vasquez Citrus & Hauling, to recruit workers.
Reyes-Trujillo and the six others were in Michigan from December 2017 to June 2018 under a contract that was to pay them $12.75 an hour for 36 hours per week at the greenhouse from January 2018 to the end of July that year, the lawsuit states.
But Reyes-Trujillo said he only received a few paycheques before they stopped. In some cases, the cheques from the recruiter bounced.
Adding to their financial problems was that they were not reimbursed for their travel and visa costs, facing a debt with growing interest.
The workers say they were also lied to about their visa status, being told by the recruiter that their visas were being extended before they arrived in Michigan. But their visas had actually already expired by the time they arrived in Michigan.
They ‘were so desperate for money for basic necessities, including food, with no means of returning home to Mexico, that they had little choice but to work at Four Star,’ the lawsuit says.
There they worked primarily in the shipping department, the lawsuit says, ‘choosing and transporting plants from the greenhouse to the shipping department, where they ticketed plants with shipping code labels and packed them for shipping around the country. Other duties involved building boxes, sweeping, and trimming plants.’
The lawsuit states that they were made to work more than 60 hours a week and their living conditions were ‘challenging’.
Reyes-Trujillo said he lived in a one-bedroom apartment nearby the greenhouse along with seven other residents: six people in the living room and two in the bedroom.
They ‘were supposed to be paid $12.75 per hour, on a weekly basis, but were not paid on time, not paid consistently, and were not paid at all for hundreds of hours of work at Four Star.’
And they ‘were paid with cheques that bounced repeatedly, to the point that the store where the Plaintiffs would cash their cheques began refusing to cash them.’
Struggling to pay for food and in debt, the workers complained to the recruiter and Four Star.
That’s when the retaliation and threats started, they allege.
The workers said they were threatened with being sent back to Mexico and being blacklisted from working in the US again under the visa programme.
According to the lawsuit, on March 21, 2018, the recruiting agent lured them out of the Chestnut Hills Apartments complex where they lived, telling them they needed to leave because of a housing inspection.
They were told ‘ a false claim’ by the recruiter that ‘they were taking them shopping at Walmart while inspectors came to their apartments, and assured them that they had nothing to worry about.’
They boarded a bus and arrived at the Walmart parking lot, which turned out to contain immigration agents.
‘As soon as we got off the bus, there was a patrol waiting for us,’ Reyes-Trujillo said. ‘The patrol was telling us on loudspeakers something we didn’t understand.’
They were arrested and taken to the Calhoun County jail, where they stayed for about two months before being deported to Mexico.
The workers can’t recall whether the federal immigration agents were with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Spokesmen for the two agencies in Michigan would not comment on the lawsuit.
The workers weren’t even able to get their personal belongings before they had to leave America.
The legal complaint states  that ‘when they were detained, nearly all their personal belongings – including their clothing and personal documents such as passports, visas, and birth certificates – were left at the Chestnut Hills Apartments.’
It adds that the ‘recruiting agent never returned their belongings, and (the workers) never recovered most of these items and have not been able to afford to replace them.’
Maria Perales Sanchez, from the Centre for Migrant Rights, said that employers often use contractors and agents to hire workers, and then try to avoid responsibility for how the workers may be mistreated. But the employers are aware of the abuses that are happening through the agents, she said.
The lawsuit alleges that Four Star chose Vasquez Citrus & Hauling despite its history of labour violations.
In March 2016, it was fined almost $22,000 by the US Department of Transportation for a bus crash that killed six workers being transported from Monroe, Michigan, back to Mexico. In 2018, the Department of Labour debarred Vasquez for three years from the H-2A programme.
In April, the Centre for Migrant Rights released a report titled ‘Ripe for Reform: Abuses of Agricultural Workers in the H-2A Programme’ which found that all of the 100 workers they interviewed had their rights violated – and 96% had three violations.
About one-third did not feel free to quit and one-third had restrictions on their mobility, the report said.
The abuses come as the number of H-2A visas has spiked.
In 2013, there were fewer than 100,000 H-2A positions nationally, with only 585 of them in Michigan.
Last year, there were 257,661 H-2A visa workers, with 9,096 of them in Michigan.
The importance of agricultural workers is especially crucial during the coronavirus crisis with concerns about food supplies, said the advocates.
‘These workers are critical, the backbone of what is keeping us alive,’ said Botts, one of the lawsuit’s attorneys.
He added that what happened in Michigan ‘is problematic of the kind of issues we see in the H-2A visa programme across the country.
‘There are problems when workers are tied to a single employer and their immigration status is tied to the employer. They can exploit workers because they know the workers are dependent on them for their legal status. This is a case where employers took full advantage of the workers.’
Gerardo Santiago Hernandez said: ‘We received so many false promises. It shouldn’t be possible for us to work so hard and not get paid as one should.’

  • The following is a statement from Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa last Wednesday July 1st about the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the revised North American trade deal that took effect that day.

‘For the first time today, Teamster truckers will have protections on the job that they haven’t had in at least a quarter century thanks to the enactment of this new trade pact.
‘The deal was possible due to the hard work of the Teamsters, a bipartisan collection of policymakers and allies who joined together and worked for years to get it done.
‘From the get-go, securing an overdue fix to the cross-border trucking provision that threatened highway safety and the competitiveness of the American trucking industry was essential for this union.
‘The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had made roadways less safe due to allowing older, Mexican-domiciled trucks on them.
‘But thanks to the hard work of House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and allies such as the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association and Advocates for Highway Safety, the USMCA adds a trade remedy to safeguard against material harm to US truckers.
‘We thank USTR Ambassador Bob Lighthizer and his team for working with us on this issue and we will continue to work closely with the agencies tasked with implementation of the “trucks fix” to ensure it is implemented vigorously and transparently.
‘Addressing cross-border trucking was necessary, but not sufficient, to securing the Teamsters’ support of the agreement. That came with new enforcement mechanisms that will protect worker rights in Mexico, especially the right to form independent unions.
‘The new labour chapter also includes the right to strike as an expression of the freedom of association and contains protections against workplace violence and for migrant workers.
‘USMCA also eliminated the investor state dispute settlement chapter from the original NAFTA that gave foreign corporations greater rights than American citizens.’