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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘The Model of Abusive Employers’

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (CN) - A Tennessee tobacco farm subjected migrant child workers to "horrendous living and working conditions," seven workers, all hired as minors, claim in court.

Lead plaintiff Pedro Chavez Velasco et al. sued Ralph M. Coley Jr. and Connie Coley dba Marty Coley Farm, in Federal Court. The farm is in Lafeyette, Tenn.

"Defendants are the model of abusive employers," the 19-page lawsuit begins. "They abuse their workers, and thumb their noses at the legal protections in place to protect those workers. They recruit child workers from overseas, subject them to horrendous living and working conditions, pay them less than minimum wage, and, if one suffers some injury that interrupts his ability to work, they cast them out without a second thought."

The workers sued individually, but say they may change it to a class action.

The plaintiffs were all hired as minors and "defendants knew that plaintiffs were minors at the time they hired them because they asked them their ages," the complaint states.

Plaintiffs Ivan Ventura Alavez says he lost three fingers in a machine the defendants made "by welding together the blade and other parts of a push lawnmower and other metal."

"The shearing machine in question had no guards or other safety features," the complaint states.

Ventura, who was 17 at the time, says the defendants compensated him for the loss of his fingers with a $100 check.

The workers say the farm stuffed as many as 18 employees in a small three-bedroom building "infested with rats, cockroaches, mosquitoes, and stray cats."

The building "was at risk of collapsing, and the chimney had already begun to collapse." It was 20 feet away from "four greenhouses containing manure ... pesticides and other chemicals," and "the discolored water from the tap was not potable," according to the complaint.

Rent was free, but the housing arrangement "allowed defendants to maintain access to and control over their workforce" and the defendants sometimes "deducted amounts from plaintiffs' pay for electricity and water services in the house," the workers say.

The workers had to buy a washing machine, stove and refrigerator for the house and were not reimbursed for it, they say.

The defendants made them work Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m., with a one-hour lunch break, and sometimes "a full day or partial day on Sunday," according to the complaint. The workers were routinely visited at the dilapidated house and made to perform tasks during non-working hours, the complaint states.

The plaintiffs were paid ambiguously, without "a pay stub or other statement detailing accurately the hours worked, wages, withholding, etc.", according to the complaint, and the defendants never gave them "notice of their wage and hour or other employment rights."

The Coleys did not reply to a request for comment.

The plaintiffs seek unpaid wages and liquidated, statutory and punitive damages, and Ventura seeks "damages stemming from his work-related injury."

They are represented by J. Gerard Stranch IV of Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings in Nashville.

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