NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Legal Mexican workers say that black folks and immigrants helped them escape the “slave-like conditions” on a strawberry plantation after their employer took away their passports and visas. The Nahuatl-speaking Indians say their boss, Charles “Bimbo” Relan, “fired his shotgun over their heads, shot and killed a dog near the fields while guest workers harvested, sprayed the guest workers with pesticides, and physically assaulted at least one worker.”
The nearly 100 plaintiffs say they were hired through the H-2A guest worker program, making them heavily dependent on their sponsoring employer for legal status, employment and housing. They say their sponsoring employer was defendant Charles “Bimbo” Relan of Bimbo’s Best Produce.
Recognizing that the cruelty of his plantation’s conditions would drive them to seek to escape, the plaintiffs say Relan confiscated their passports and visas and subjected them to other illegal abuses.
The plaintiffs, many of whom speak Nahuatl and only basic Spanish, but no English, say Relan subjected them to “a scheme of psychological coercion, threats of serious harm, and threatened [them with] abuse of the legal process” so that he could maintain control over them as they toiled on his strawberry plantation in Amite, La..
The workers say they “feared for their physical safety as Relan fired his shotgun over their heads, shot and killed a dog near the fields while guest workers harvested, sprayed the guest workers with pesticides, and physically assaulted at least one worker.”
They say Relan also threatened them with arrest, eviction, deportation and paid less than minimum wage.
The class claims that, although “the guest workers were increasingly terrified and trapped in a situation of forced labor,” they saw no way to escape.
Finally, “when members of the African-American and immigrant communities came forward to protect the guest workers, the guest workers escaped the slave-like conditions” of the strawberry plantation, and “courageously reported Relan’s activity to the appropriate federal law enforcement authorities.”
The class is represented in Federal Court by Jennifer Rosenbaum. They seek damages for violations of the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and breach of their’ H-2A employment contracts.