Miserable Work Reported at Pioneer Hi-Bred
BROWNSVILLE, Texas (CN) - Twenty-three Texans claim in court that Pioneer Hi-Bred International paid them less than minimum wage for detasseling corn in Indiana under threat that "taking a bathroom break or stopping to drink water would affect their end-of-season bonus."
Plaintiffs in the federal complaint are divided into four groups based on the year, from 2009 to 2012, they worked at Pioneer's corn farm in Plymouth, Ind.
Each group levels identical allegations against defendants Yolanda and Abel Cuello, the husband-and-wife recruiters who hired them in South Texas to work for Pioneer.
Lead plaintiff Leonides Figueroa claims Abel Cuello falsely promised all the laborers corn detasseling "work for four or five weeks, sun up to sun down, at $8.00 per hour," free transportation to Indiana and back to Texas, "arrival pay" to buy food until they got their first paychecks and end-of-season bonuses.
"Detasseling is labor-intensive work performed on the corn while it is still planted in the field. The tassel at the top of each of the corn stalks in a row is removed by hand. Rows can be between a half-mile and a mile long," the complaint states.
Such work requires a hearty diet, but Figueroa says they were housed at an Economy Inn with microwaves that were "inadequate for cooking" and the only hot meals available were from a food truck brought on site by the Cuellos' relative and "sold to them at high prices."
The workers were stuffed in the hotel rooms so that some of them had to share beds with non-relatives and sleep on the floor, Figueroa says in the 96-page complaint.
Worse, Figueroa says, the laborers did not get the number of hours promised, they were stiffed for hours they did work, they were paid less than minimum wage and some didn't get their promised bonuses.
"Plaintiffs would not have accepted defendants' offer of employment, nor would they have traveled to Indiana in reliance on defendants' promises, if defendants had represented to them, accurately, truthfully and without falsity, the actual terms, conditions and existence of the work," the complaint states.
Figueroa says the working conditions were miserable, as "defendants failed to ensure that the portable field toilets would be moved as work progressed so that they would be within a quarter mile from the workers, and failed to ensure that hand washing facilities would have water in them."
There was no time to use the bathroom anyway, Figueroa says, because Abel Cuello would tell the workers that "taking a bathroom break or stopping to drink water would affect their end-of-season bonus."
Figueroa and his co-plaintiffs seek damages breach of contract and violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
They are represented by Daniela Dwyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
In 2012 Pioneer Hi-Bred International changed its name to DuPont Pioneer. It produces more hybrid seeds than any other company in the United States.
Defendants include E&B Harvesting & Trucking Inc. and 3-C's Group Inc.
Yolanda Cuello is president of both companies.