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California Field-Workers|Blast Debt Servitude

LOS ANGELES (CN) - They came to America from Mexico to pick lemons and oranges in Santa Clara River Valley, hoping for a better life, "good jobs" and a chance to send money home to their families.

But four fruit pickers say they found themselves virtually imprisoned with a dozen other workers in a two-bedroom home in San Maria, in debt servitude, picking strawberries for as little as $2.50 per hour.

Their passports were confiscated and they were told they would be deported if they left. Their only relief from the cramped home came when they left to work in strawberry fields for up to 13 hours a day.

They couldn't leave the house for groceries or make phone calls and their meals were limited to two rotisserie chickens they shared with a dozen other workers.

These allegations and more appear in the June 29 federal complaint from Jose Raul Gonzalez Suarez and three others.

They sued Yolanda Chavez, Jorge Vazquez, who ran the fruit farms, and seven businesses, including Yolanda Chavez Farming, J & D Harvesting, and H2A Placement Services.

Defendant H2A lured them from Mexico with promises of $10 an hour jobs picking lemons and oranges in Fillmore, and free housing, the workers say.

But there were strings attached.

Gonzalez Suarez's three co-plaintiffs say that when they were recruited in Michoacan, they were told they would have to pay $1,500 apiece to get the benefits of the H-2A visa program.

The payments, which are illegal, were paid into Vazquez's bank account, the workers say, and after traveling from Michoacan to Tijuana they had to wait two months for their work visas.

Though hotel accommodation and food were provided at first, that didn't last long, the workers say. A week later they were taken to a house where a 12 people slept in one room, and they had to pay for the cramped room and their own food.

Once in the U.S., with visas, they did not fare better. They were taken to California, where Vasquez's nephew, "Diego," took their passports. Chavez and Vazquez then charged them $80 a week for food and housing.

Work at the strawberry fields called Yolanda Chavez Farming in Santa Maria started after drop-off at 4 a.m., the workers say. They say they worked 11 to 15 hours a day, six days a week, and got $200 in cash for their first week's work of 66 to 78 hours, despite a contractual agreement for $10 per hour.

And they weren't paid at all for week two. "Defendants claimed that plaintiff's second paychecks were going towards the remaining $1,500 defendants claimed each plaintiff owed them," the complaint states.

The defendants had other employees who guarded them at the home, the workers say, adding that they feared Vasquez was "capable of inflicting bodily harm against each of them, and/or their families in Mexico."

Gonzalez Suarez escaped; the three others say they could not leave until they'd each paid Vasquez the $1,500 he demanded.

They seek wages owed, an injunction, restitution of illegal deductions, and damages for human trafficking, false imprisonment, unlawful business practices, labor law violations and other offenses, including violations of provisions of H-2A of the Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Defendants include, Ramirez AG Services, Ram AG Farms, and Yims Farming.

The workers are represented by Corrie Arellano with California Rural Legal Assistance of Santa Maria who did not immediately respond to a request for comment by phone on Friday.


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