GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (CN) - Fifteen migrant workers say an East Tennessee tomato farm subjected them to inhumane and illegal conditions, including acute exposure to pesticides, terrible housing, false arrest, threats of violence, and interference with a Department of Labor investigation, all followed by "private deportation" to Mexico.
Lead plaintiff Miguel Lopez says he and his compatriots were recruited to come from Mexico in 2010 to work at defendant Jimmy Carroll Fish dba Fish Farms, in Cocke County, Tenn., under H-2A guest worker visas.
The H-2A program requires employers to comply with health and safety standards for employer-provided housing, among other things.
But the workers say, "Defendants failed to comply with those standards. Instead, believing they had a captive labor force that was Hispanic and Mexican and could not or would not complain or enforce the law, defendants flagrantly violated federal H-2A standards. Defendants subjected plaintiffs to intolerable working and housing conditions, including acute exposure to pesticides, and forced the plaintiffs to wash their clothes in an adjacent river."
This exposure included spraying pesticides close to their living quarters and on the fields in which they were working, the men say.
When they "dared" to complain, the workers say, "the defendants acted swiftly and decisively to silence plaintiffs."
In one case, they say, the defendants falsely accused a worker of aggravated assault and had him arrested in front of the other workers.
"During this incident, defendants and their agent also surrounded plaintiffs' housing, brandishing firearms, intimidating plaintiffs and interfering with the U.S. Department of Labor's investigation," the complaint states.
"Approximately two weeks later, and immediately after plaintiffs attempted to document additional pesticide exposure, defendants retaliated again, physically threatening plaintiffs. Defendants invaded plaintiffs' housing area, yelling racial slurs, kicked in the door of one plaintiff's trailer, and grabbed cell phones from several plaintiffs. "Then defendants fired plaintiffs en masse and corralled plaintiffs onto a waiting bus, held them on the bus for several hours, refusing to permit them to get off, and carried out what was in effect a private deportation of plaintiffs by taking them to a bus station to return them to Mexico."
The workers seek compensatory damages, liquidated damages and declaratory relief on claims of violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, federal and state civil laws, the Tennessee Public Protection Act, and Tennessee contract law.
Also named as defendants are Walter Jackson Fish dba Fish Farms, and Christine Fish Gilliam dba Fish Farms.
The workers' lead counsel is Melody Fowler-Green.