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Migrant workers win lawsuit against seed company

Dave Hinton/Rantoul Press editor/An Indiana seed company has agreed to pay more than $200,000 to 91 migrant farm workers, including several workers who formerly resided in the Rantoul area.

Remington Hybrid Seed Co. of Remington, Ind., reached a settlement to make the payment. A 2008 federal lawsuit was filed against the company in Texas for violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and for breach of contract.

The suit, settled in July, alleges the failure of a migrant farm recruiter employed by the company to follow through on promises made to migrant workers.

The company agreed to pay $220,000, including $68,000 in attorney fees.

A $337,000 outstanding judgment has also been rendered against farm recruiter Abelardo “Lalo” Mendoza, formerly of Rantoul.

Miguel Keberlein of the Illinois Migrant Legal Assistance Project said Mendoza has not been located. 

Remington Hybrid Seed attorney Donald Shelmon said the vast majority of the more than 1,500 migrant workers employed by the company are satisfied with how they are treated by the company.

At the heart of the issue is a federal law that Keberlein said holds companies accountable for the promises made by migrant farm worker recruiters.

Keberlein said the Migrant Seasonal and Agricultural Protection Act passed in the early 1980s was meant to hold employers and recruiters accountable for violations “that repeatedly happen.”

He said many recruiters are honest people who care about the treatment of migrant workers, but some are not. He said they promise workers that they will receive free housing, free transportation, free food, an adequate amount of work and good treatment. Many times, he said, they get none of that.

The workers claimed they had to live in deplorable living conditions, were given less work than promised and not paid for all hours worked. They said many were retaliated against when they tried to assert their rights.

“Some of them did get to work,” Keberlein said, “but most of them had problems with housing. It was deplorable or (there was) no housing at all. They had to go to churches and other organizations to ask for help. There were people living at Cherry Orchard. That was the best they could find. It is rather pathetic housing.”

Cherry Orchard is an infamous apartment complex between Rantoul and Thomasboro that has been cited for miserable living conditions and a poor septic sewage system. A Champaign County circuit court judge recently issued a restraining order that allowed the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District to close one building at Cherry Orchard due to unsanitary conditions. Earlier, the managers, Bernard and Eduardo Ramos, were fined for failing to comply with orders to clean up the septic system or have the property vacated. The Ramoses, however, have disappeared and continue to rent out the apartments.

He said many migrants “spent their last dollar to get up (to Illinois). It put them in a real tough position.”

Shelmon, representing Remington Seeds, said 99 percent of the more than 1,500 migrant workers the company employs “have had no complaints and enjoy (working for Remington).”

“Most of the contractors’ workers come year after year to work in fields where Remington’s corn is being grown,” Shelmon said. “Remington requires its contractors to comply with the provisions of the law and most importantly to treat all with respect as a co-worker.

“Remington is thankful for all the workers who choose to repeatedly work in their fields.”

Keberlein said the law doesn’t require that seed companies provide free housing or free food. They don’t even have to pay overtime. (They must pay at least minimum wage.) But it says if the workers are promised something, the recruiters and the companies must follow through.

“Many of the migrant workers don’t even know this clause exists,” Keberlein said, “and that’s what we do, to educate them.”

The 91 migrant workers represented in the case were employed by Remington Hybrid Seed in 2006-08, all from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

“Several were settled around Rantoul (which Keberlein said is sort of a “center for migrant living.” The former Chanute hospital houses more than 300 migrant workers), and several lived in Cherry Orchard,” Keberlein said.

He said several migrant workers continued to live at Cherry Orchard in the off season because they couldn’t afford to travel back home.

“They try to settle out ... to find some work in Illinois,” he said. Most couldn’t find work.

He called Cherry Orchard “horrendous.”

“We’ve had issues with that place for years,” he said, adding that other companies had settled lawsuits and agreed not to house people there.

One problem, Keberlein said, is that many migrant recruiters are paid up front and are not given many guidelines of what they can promise workers “and promise anything.”

The recruiters put the workers in the cheapest housing they can find and then pocket as much of the money as they can.

“The company says, ‘It’s not our fault; it’s the farm labor recruiter’s fault.’ Until these companies take more responsibility, the system is going to fail the farm workers,” Keberlein said.

The Illinois Migrant Legal Assistance Project worked with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and Indiana Legal Services Farmworker Law Center in filing the suit, which was filed three years ago and only recently settled.

The case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern Division of Texas-Brownsville Division.

Remington Seed appealed the order to pay attorney fees to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals but withdrew the appeal and agreed to pay $68,000, Keberlein said.

The settlement was pro-rated so that the migrant workers would be paid based on total damages ranging from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars according to “how much the person would have worked or did work and the housing conditions,” Keberlein said.

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