Thursday, July 20, 2006
On Jan. 6, Roberto Acuña walked into the Employment Development Department office in Delano where he lived and spotted what appeared to be a pretty decent job opening.
Produce giant Fresh Harvest was seeking lettuce harvesters. According to the posting, the company would pay workers $8.56 an hour for nine months of work (from March 15 to Nov. 15). Workers would also receive free housing. Meals would be available for approximately $9 per day.
With assistance from the employment office, Acuña, a US citizen, contacted Fresh Harvest and submitted his application. A month later, Acuña was contacted by a Fresh Harvest agent and offered employment, according to a lawsuit Acuña filed on July 7.
Soon after, things started to go downhill for Acuña. After moving to Salinas in March, Acuña had trouble getting in touch with Fresh Harvest representatives. When he finally made contact, he was told that the job harvesting lettuce heads might not begin until April. The lawsuit further states that Fresh Harvest officials said Acuña wouldn’t get free housing and there’d be no meals for $9, as stated in the job posting.
Acuña eventually started working in the fields for Fresh Harvest on April 14—five weeks after showing up in Salinas. But he was only paid $7.25 per hour to pick lettuce heads, below the advertised rate of $8.56 per hour.
Soon after that, Acuña contacted lawyers at California Rural Legal Assistance (CLRA) in Salinas to complain.
On July 7, CRLA attorneys Michael Meuter and Maria Mendoza filed a lawsuit on behalf of Acuña, accusing Fresh Harvest of violating state and federal laws providing protection to seasonal farmworkers recruited for employment.
A spokesperson for the Fresh Harvest administrative office said that the company has no comment at this time on the lawsuit.
The twist in Acuña’s lawsuit is this: The job posting that he responded to was used by Fresh Harvest to meet a certification requirements from the US Department of Labor that allowed the company to bring in 235 temporary foreign guest workers to work the lettuce harvesting season, March 15 to Nov. 15.
Federal law says companies who want to import temporary farmworkers must first list their job postings in employment offices like the one Acuña visited in January.
Before a grower can “import” any foreign farm laborers to toil in American farm fields during the busy harvest season, they must first show that workers who are already in this country don’t want the job.
Once that’s established, then an employer can start the process of bringing in foreign workers from across the border.
That’s how the temporary farm worker system is supposed to work under the US Department of Labor’s H-2A program, the latest incarnation of a labor-import program that US farms have been using since the 1940s to make up for farmworker shortages.
Meuter says he’s seen a number of employer abuses of the H-2A program. “A common pattern we see is employers post H-2A job announcements and then erect unnecessary barriers and hurdles for domestic workers to apply for those jobs,” he says. “They make it difficult for them to get into those jobs.”
Marc Grossman, spokesman for United Farm Workers, says one reason why some growers and labor contractors prefer foreign workers comes down to a control issue. “If an undocumented [or documented] worker already in this country is mistreated, they can simply leave,” Grossman says. “But if you’re brought in under H-2A, you’re brought in by a visa arranged with the employer. When they say the works over, you’re out of there.”