A lack of enforcement or inspections and legal loopholes are leaving migrant workers in Iowa vulnerable, cheated of wages and living in substandard housing, an IowaWatch investigation revealed.
Over the course of three years, one Iowa lawyer dealt with 39 migrant worker cases of wage theft, broken contracts, substandard housing, working arrangement violations and Agricultural Workers Protection Act violations.
Attorneys who spoke with IowaWatch said many cases likely go unreported because workers are afraid of losing their jobs or because workers are undocumented and fear deportation.
Federal and state laws exist to protect these workers, but the workers often are at the mercy of farm labor contractors who receive little oversight from the large agricultural companies that hire them.
Housing for migrant workers in Iowa must receive a permit, but evaluation of the housing is self-administered and inspections are made only following complaints. Some contractors fail to provide workers with pay stubs that include hours worked, which makes it difficult for workers to prove wage theft if they bring a complaint to trial.
Farm labor contractors are hired by larger agricultural businesses to recruit, house, and supervise migrant workers. The companies are supposed to “take reasonable steps” to ensure contractors are registered under a federal license, but often are not held liable for a contractor’s actions.
Noé Alegria, who has been a migrant worker since 2010, said he has had bad experiences with contractors in Iowa and Nebraska.
“I wish the contractors would be more humane, that they wouldn’t abuse their power. Instead of cheating us, that they’d pay us what we’ve earned. Because if it weren’t for us, the workers, the job wouldn’t get done,” Alegria said.
Alegria, 51, of San Juan, Texas, was one of 13 workers who filed a lawsuit this year against Monsanto and three individuals who recruited and housed the workers. His son, Noé Alegria Jr., 18, worked with him, and is listed as a minor in the case. Noé Jr. was 16 years old at the time.
Migrant workers, or agricultural workers who can’t travel to their permanent residence at night due to distance, often are involved in roguing and detasseling Iowa’s soy and cornfields. Roguing, or “walking the beans,” involves going through the rows of soybean plants to remove large weeds. Detasseling involves removing the tassel, the top part of the corn plant, in some rows in order to promote cross-pollination in the production of hybrid corn.
Alegria moved to the United States in 1981 and worked in construction, pouring cement foundations and doing carpentry work. He started working as a migrant in order to support his kids’ education. He has nine children and is helping five through school.
“When they are in primary school, we help them with uniforms, notebooks, supplies. And when they grow up, they also start to work or go to study far away from home. I am going to work as a laborer so that my kids will be okay when they grow up. I couldn’t go to school, but they can.”
He said it has been difficult to find work in the southern part of Texas where he lives.
“You don’t become rich working as a migrant. I’m doing this to help my children. It’s a sacrifice,” he said.
The summer of 2011 was the first time Alegria had worked in Iowa.
A CASE AGAINST MONSANTO
Alegria and the 12 other workers in the lawsuit were involved in detasseling and sorting corn near Boone, Iowa, in a field owned by Monsanto.
The group filed a civil action suit in February in United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid represented the workers. RioGrande Legal Aid is a non-profit legal service in southern Texas near the Mexico border that frequently handles migrant worker cases. Although the organization is located 1,000 miles south of Iowa’s border, it often handles the cases of migrants who worked in Iowa.
The complaint claimed Monsanto and the contractor, Alejandro Moreno, of McAllen, Texas, failed to pay wages when due. It said workers weren’t paid fully and deductions were taken from some workers’ pay for housing and repayment of advances. The deductions didn’t appear on pay stubs. It also lists problems with housing and working conditions.
The workers and their families traveled to Iowa, following verbal and written promises made earlier that year by Moreno, a federally licensed labor contractor, about jobs in Monsanto’s cornfields.
Housing would be provided, they were told.
But when they arrived, they found an old building divided into substandard apartments and delays of up to 10 days before they could begin working.
Advanced wages, promised to the workers to help them transition into their temporary home, failed to appear.
“Some of the workers went around and collected aluminum cans for the deposit, and that’s how they fed themselves and their children,” said Marinda Van Dalen, a RioGrande Legal Aid attorney who worked the case on behalf of the workers.
Alegria described the apartment where he and his son lived along with four other people as “in very bad condition.” The apartment consisted of one bedroom, a living room where four people slept on small cots, a kitchen and a bathroom.
They had to travel through the bedroom to get to the bathroom, Alegria said. This is a violation of requirements for migrant housing set by the Iowa Department of Public Health and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Sometimes the hot water didn’t work, which made it difficult to bathe when the workers arrived back from the fields covered in dirt and pollen as well as other farm chemicals.
“The workers are working in fields where pesticides are being applied and they have no facilities to wash their clothes, which is important. Workers know that after work they need to shower and wash their clothes,” Van Dalen said.
Exposure to pesticides can cause irritation and burning on the skin and eyes, in addition to affecting the reproductive system, causing developmental problems in children and respiratory problems in those exposed.
Between 2008 and 2012 there were 2,519 work-related pesticide poisonings in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.Of those, 22 cases were due to contact with a previously treated surface, like treated crops.
Alegria’s sister, along with his niece and her children, stayed in the basement apartment.
“One of the water pipes broke and everything in the room was damp. They got up one day and everyone got their feet wet because the carpet was soaked. And there were spiders,” he said.
The apartments, located in a building in Madrid, Iowa, are owned by Francisca Moreno, who is Alejandro Moreno’s wife, and Micaela Ledezma.
Repeated phone calls from IowaWatch to the Morenos were unsuccessful as were attempts to contact them through their defense lawyer.
The housing was approved through the Iowa Department of Public Health Migrant Labor Camp Program. The permit requires a self-administered checklist and diagram of the buildings used for housing.
The checklist asks questions such as whether the water supply is adequate for drinking, cooking, bathing and laundry purposes and ensuring occupants don’t have to pass through a bedroom to access toilet facilities.
The housing application filed with the Iowa Department of Public Health says there was a laundry unit a block away. It also said toilet facilities were properly located, Heather Lloyd, who works with the Migrant Labor Camp Program, said.
Inspections are made only after a complaint has been filed because of a lack of funds available to do them regularly. And complaints are rare, Lloyd said.
“We are doing as much as we can to make sure that we are protecting workers,” she said. “I would like to believe that if they truly thought there was a problem, they would be able to call us up. But I don’t know if they know about us, or if there is a language barrier.”
During the 2013 operating season, six operators applied for a total of 20 camp locations. All told, camps were permitted to house up to 1,682 people.
However, Lloyd said this doesn’t represent the number of migrant workers in Iowa. She said she has noticed a growing trend of operators putting workers up in hotel rooms, a process that does not have to be monitored, or have a permit. Many workers also are responsible for their own housing.
An estimated 2,500 farms, orchards and nurseries in Iowa employ migrant and seasonal workers every year, according to the Iowa Workforce Development.
Justin Gross, an attorney with Iowa Legal Aid, said he tries seek damages from both the farm labor contractor and the businesses when he takes on a case with a migrant worker cheated of wages or whose contract has been violated.
“They (the businesses) will say, ‘We are just working through this guy and we have no idea who he has hired or how they are working. We, as attorneys, argue that they should know and they should follow up on these farm labor contractors and make sure they are doing their job,” Gross said.
While companies legally are required to take “reasonable steps” to ensure contractors have a federal license, they often are off the hook when it comes to ensuring the contractors provide a working and living environment that meets regulations.
“Although this case settled quickly, the lawyer for Monsanto said they planned to deny responsibility for housing, which is unfortunately very common. There have been some cases in the past that make it very difficult to hold companies responsible for the housing their crew leaders provide,” Van Dalen said.
Tom Helscher, director of corporate affairs for Monsanto, responded to questions by email in short, blunt sentences.
While the lawsuit complaint listed issues with substandard housing, undisclosed deductions from wages, failure to pay wages on time, failure to provide facilities and drinking water in the fields, one case of unlawfully terminated employment and other breaches of contract, Helscher said the “dispute had to do with compensation of the laborers.”
Monsanto has “agreed with counsel for the laborers on settlement terms and (is) waiting for the paperwork,” he said.
Helscher said contractors with Monsanto are required to carry their registration with them at all times and Monsanto has a current copy of all registrations on file, which it checks every year.
Although Moreno still holds a license, Monsanto did not contract with Moreno in 2013, he said. He did not explain why.
Workers can contact the U.S. Department of Labor with complaints about farm labor contractors.
Contractors are required to maintain federal licenses through the Department of Labor in order to recruit, hire, and work with migrant workers. Additional paperwork is required if the contractor wishes to drive, house or transport the workers.
Neither Moreno nor any of the apartments’ owners was licensed to house migrant workers.
Sixty-three Iowans are listed on the federal database, which includes a total of 8,792 individuals and corporations across the nation. Contractors can work in states outside their listed home address.
Complaints made to the department are inspected and can result in the suspension or revoking of the contractor’s license.
Lawsuits and Department of Labor complaints are mutually exclusive, Gross said. Often, the lawsuits are settled and contractors keep their license and continue working.
Over the past three years, Gross has handled nine cases involving workers not receiving wages earned, having substandard housing or the employer keeping a worker’s passport during the work contract. In that time, he has also handled 30 cases involving violations of the working arrangement and violations of the Agricultural Workers Protection Act.
Cynthia Martinez, communications director for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said workers frequently are recruited from Texas based on promises of pay and housing.
“The workers will say, ‘Yes, I can support my family on that much,’ and they’ll agree to these conditions and then they leave their home and they go one thousand miles away and the promises they were given aren’t kept. A lot of times they end up actually owing money. So then they come back home and they usually are kind of broken by that time and they reach out to us,” she said.
Martinez said the legal aid office provides outreach to educate workers, emphasizing the importance of getting written contracts to prevent abuses from occurring. Once abuses occur, the office can provide legal help.
“Our hope is to prevent these workers from getting in these situations initially and to be able to defend themselves immediately if they do,” she said.
Many workers in the RioGrande case received two different written contracts in addition to verbal promises from the labor contractor.
“They were told verbally one set of promises and then were give two contracts with different promises. The written document may say one thing and then the crew leader may say anther. And workers, who are much more adept in oral communication than written, they understandably rely on those verbal promises,” Van Dalen said.
She said the practice was fairly common.
AN UNCERTAIN JUSTICE
Alegria said his family received settlement payments from Monsanto for his work, but is still waiting on the check for his son, who as a dependent must see the check pass through a judge first.
Alegria said he’s content with the payment. “It’s already done, and the payment is a help because here in the (RioGrande) valley there’s no jobs. Between not getting anything and getting something, this is better.”
However, Van Dalen said the payments aren’t enough to deter future abuse.
“The federal statutes that protect farmers is quite comprehensive and allows for damages that are really inadequate in this day and age. When you regularly sue these big companies, even when you get a settlement that is substantial from the workers’ perspective, it really doesn’t have any deterrent effect on these companies, which continue each year to violate the laws in the same ways,” she said.
This past summer, Alegria said he traveled to Nebraska, again working for Monsanto.
In Nebraska, he said he and other workers faced problems with pay stubs, which are required under federal law and should show the number of hours worked and the basis of pay, either hourly or piece-rate. Many workers are paid based on the number of rows they finish.
“They paid us, but our pink sheets didn’t show any of what we’d earned. You couldn’t see how much you’d earned or how many hours you’d worked,” Alegria said.
In Nebraska, workers were housed in a hotel, where they had to cook outside because there were no cooking facilities in their rooms. They were plagued by rain and dust that made preparing food difficult. Under federal law, H-2A workers, which is the formal term for temporary agricultural workers, are supposed to be provided with free cooking facilities or receive three meals per day.
Alegria said he had to opt for purchasing more expensive prepared food that he could eat in his room.
Payments on the hotel room provided by the contractor ceased before the end of the job, he said.
“I was told I had to leave or pay by 10:30 or 11 in the morning the next day. I decided to leave because in order to stay in a hotel room you can’t earn any money. The room costs $60 per person per day and I was going to earn $35 a day.”
Despite the bad experiences, Alegria says he doesn’t believe Monsanto is at fault.
“It wouldn’t be in Monsanto’s interest to do this to us because then who would work for them? It’s the contractors who take advantage of Monsanto’s trust and of ours. I think when Monsanto has a job, they give money to the contractors so they can look after the workers, provide apartments, and supplies; and the contractors go and look for a places in which they can keep some of the money Monsanto provides. They keep most of the money for themselves.”
He added: “I like the work, but the problem is the contractors don’t treat us well. I would like to do something more, but an immigrant works for his family in any way he can.”
“A POPULATION IN NEED OF A VOICE”
Migrant workers frequently face corruption and have difficulty seeking repayment due to the barriers of language, education, and fears of losing their jobs, attorneys and officials with legal aid offices said in IowaWatch interviews.
“It’s a population that is in need of a voice. It’s population that lacks protection. A lot of them leave their place of residence for several months in hopes of a better life, earning a better wage,” Gross, the Iowa Legal Aid attorney, said.
Legal aid organizations are unable to represent undocumented workers, Gross said, but the codes and regulations technically protect undocumented workers.
“They are here and they are working, regardless of their status, so there are protections that they are given as workers. Someone can, whether they are documented or undocumented, file a Department of Labor complaint, but the question is will they have the time, or be able to do so because of the language barrier? Probably not. Educating is the only thing we can do for those that are undocumented.”
Gross is also on the board of Proteus, an organization that provides outreach to migrant workers. This outreach provides education about worker’s rights, which is a key step in protecting migrant workers regardless of their legal status, he said.
“Part of it is knowing what their rights are. Knowing that you have a right to, whether it be a certain wage or water when you are out in the fields, or bathrooms within a certain radius of where you are working. If something has been violated, then it is knowing who they can contact.”
Gross also said Proteus advises workers to keep records of the days and hours worked, as well as saving any paperwork they receive and getting copies of working agreements. Having these records can make it easier to prove claims in court.
Gross said more enforcement is necessary to ensure businesses are using certified farm labor contractors and penalties for hiring non-certified contractors.
He’d also like to see more oversight of the contractor
“The farm labor contractors kind of get a way with violating the laws. Now, granted they may not be hired by that employer again, but that’s a small price to pay if they got off with several hundred dollars that were supposed to.”This IowaWatch story was published in the Des Moines Register, The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), Mason City Globe Gazette and The Courier (Waterloo-Cedar Falls).