WESLACO, Texas – Twelve Rio Grande Valley farmworkers have settled their lawsuit against Poverty Point Produce, a sweet potato grower in northern Louisiana, and local recruiters Raul Leal, Jesse Leal, and Piedad Leal for more than $52,000.
Represented by Southern Migrant Legal Services (SMLS), a project of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), and private attorney Edward Cloutman, the farmworkers alleged numerous violations regarding recruitment, pay, transportation, and housing, in addition to claims of assault and battery. The U.S. Department of Labor had already cited the defendants for similar violations under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act in prior years.
According to the farmworkers, the defendants failed to adequately disclose the conditions of employment, failed to provide housing and transportation in compliance with federal safety standards, and fostered an abusive work environment. When the farmworkers attempted to leave Poverty Point Produce, they were allegedly assaulted by one of their supervisors.
“If we don’t speak up for ourselves, then farmers and recruiters will keep taking advantage of us and nothing will ever change,” explained farmworker Gilberto Garcia. “So many other workers from the Valley are mistreated by their employers and people should realize that we deserve to be treated better.”
Knowing that other workers at Poverty Point Produce had suffered similar violations, the farmworkers sought collective status, a decision that resulted in the company providing additional payments to 92 other farmworkers.
SMLS attorney Caitlin Berberich added that growers such as Poverty Point Produce often use recruiters to find employees and then place the blame for any legal violations exclusively on the recruiter. According to Berberich, “There is no way that the recruiters could have violated labor laws unless Poverty Point Produce was allowing it to happen. We hope that this lawsuit motivates other growers in the area to improve their practices and to take labor abuses seriously.”
The farm workers filed their lawsuit on September 26, 2006 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Brownsville, Texas. Moreno et al. v. Poverty Point Produce, Inc., et al., Civ. No. 06-154, U.S. Dist. Ct., S.D. Tex., Brownsville Div.
Southern Migrant Legal Services is a project of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) based in Nashville, Tennessee that provides free employment-related legal services to migrant farm workers who work in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Established in 1970, TRLA is a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to low-income and disadvantaged clients in a 68-county service area that covers the southwestern third of the state, including the entire Texas-Mexico border region. TRLA’s mission is to promote the dignity, self-sufficiency, safety and stability of low-income Texans by providing high quality legal services and related educational services. For more information on TRLA visit www.trla.org.