Ex-mem­ber: No ranch work meant ouster from po­lyg­a­mist sect


A fed­eral judge be­gan hear­ing ev­i­dence Mon­day in a child labour case in­volv­ing a Utah polyg­a­mous sect, in­clud­ing tes­ti­mony from a for­mer mem­ber who says she would have been kicked out of the faith if she didn’t work on a pecan har­vest.

Alyssa Bist­line said she started work on the pecan ranch at age 13 at the di­rec­tion of polyg­a­mous lead­ers. She said she was ex­pected to work har­vests on and off un­til she left the sect in 2013.

“I well un­der­stood that if I didn’t go, I was in big trou­ble,” said Bist­line, 21. “They said, ‘If you rebel or dis­obey, you will lose your fam­ily or you will re­moved.’”

Fed­eral labour in­ves­ti­ga­tors say Paragon Con­trac­tors used 1,400 un­paid labour­ers, in­clud­ing 175 chil­dren, from the Fun­da­men­tal­ist Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter Day Saints dur­ing a 2012 har­vest cap­tured by news cam­eras about 300 miles south of Salt Lake City. The Hur­ri­cane-based com­pany is closely af­fil­i­ated with the FLDS church, pros­e­cu­tors say.

Paragon de­nies wrong­do­ing, say­ing women and chil­dren from the sect led by the im­pris­oned War­ren Jeffs were vol­un­teer­ing to col­lect fallen nuts, not work­ing as em­ploy­ees.

“We’re not here to try the church. That’s an­other case for an­other day,” com­pany lawyer Rick Suther­land said.

The har­vest man­ager, not com­pany lead­ers, made the ar­range­ment, and fam­i­lies were al­lowed to keep half of what they gath­ered, Paragon at­tor­neys say.

The U.S. La­bor Depart­ment is ask­ing a judge to hold Paragon in con­tempt of court for vi­o­lat­ing a 2007 or­der against us­ing child labour and wants the com­pany to pay back wages. U.S. District Judge Tena Camp­bell is set to hear three days of tes­ti­mony.

Farm work is gen­er­ally ex­empt from child labour laws in Utah as long as it’s done out­side school hours. Paragon says the 2012 pecan har­vest can’t be con­sid­ered a school day be­cause chil­dren in the sect are homeschooled and mi­nors were with their par­ents.

Fed­eral at­tor­neys dis­agree. They say it doesn’t mat­ter whether the chil­dren were taught at home; they still shouldn’t have been work­ing dur­ing pub­lic school hours.

The govern­ment says chil­dren as young as 6 worked for long hours, got sick from crawl­ing over the damp ground and were sent to work even if they were al­ler­gic to nuts.

Paragon and sev­eral mem­bers of the polyg­a­mous group al­ready have been fined a to­tal of $1.9 mil­lion af­ter a labour in­ves­ti­ga­tion found sect lead­ers di­rected the har­vest.

Au­thor­i­ties say those lead­ers are loyal to Jeffs, who is serv­ing a life sen­tence in Texas af­ter be­ing con­victed in 2011 of sex­u­ally as­sault­ing un­der­age girls he con­sid­ered brides.

The sect, a rad­i­cal off­shoot of Mor­monism, does not have a spokesman or a phone list­ing where lead­ers can be con­tacted.

Two of Jeffs’ brothers de­clined to dis­cuss church busi­ness when they were called to tes­tify in the child labour case in Jan­uary 2015.

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