In Trump era, fear a po­tent weapon for abu­sive bosses

Mex­i­can guest work­ers and ad­vo­cates re­port ris­ing abuse and threats of re­tal­i­a­tion

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Kar­tikay Mehro­tra, Peter Wald­man and Jonathan Levin

The hours would be long, the sun blaz­ing, the food ter­ri­ble — Os­car Ivan Con­tr­eras knew what to ex­pect as the bus rum­bled to­ward the United States.

He’d been on this bus be­fore, bound for Cal­i­for­nia and a sea­son’s work pick­ing blue­ber­ries. It was partly math that pulled him back now: Six hours’ pay as a le­gal, tem­po­rary worker for Munger Bros., North Amer­ica’s largest blue­berry grower, equals a week’s wages back home in the Mex­i­can state of Na­yarit.

But al­most as soon as he and some 600 other Mex­i­can guest work­ers ar­rived in Cal­i­for­nia’s Cen­tral Val­ley, he re­al­ized some­thing was very dif­fer­ent from the year be­fore. It was spring 2017, and Amer­ica had changed.

Munger’s man­agers were surlier, he says, and more de­mand­ing. On many days, work­ers got no lunch un­til 3 p.m. — and when the food came, it was often rot­ten or there wasn’t enough, Con­tr­eras says. Munger failed to sup­ply suf­fi­cient drink­ing wa­ter or toi­lets at one of its fa­cil­i­ties, re­sult­ing in a $6,000 fine from the state. Work­ers say they were com­pelled to work even when sick or in­jured. Ul­ti­mately, the com­pany fired dozens of them when they walked off the job for a day after one man col­lapsed in the fields.

Through­out, those who com­plained heard a new re­frain from Munger su­per­vi­sors, tuned to the era of Pres­i­dent Trump’s strict im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies: “Go back to Mex­ico.” This re­sponse to ev­ery gripe “was a way to re­mind the worker the com­pany

has the power to fire them and send them home,” ac­cord­ing to a court af­fi­davit by Sierra Gio­vanna, who man­aged Munger’s guest worker pro­gram be­fore she was fired in Au­gust 2017. The af­fi­davit was filed in a fed­eral law­suit in which work­ers ac­cuse De­lano, Calif.-based Munger of la­bor traf­fick­ing.

Munger’s treat­ment of its guest work­ers in 2017 has drawn fines from reg­u­la­tors in Cal­i­for­nia and Wash­ing­ton state, and a fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the La­bor De­part­ment. The com­pany de­clined to an­swer ques­tions for this ar­ti­cle, but said after the work­ers sued last Jan­uary that it in­tended to “vig­or­ously fight” their claims. “All em­ploy­ees are treated well and are paid well,” it said.

In court fil­ings, Munger de­nies wrong­do­ing, claims the guest work­ers’ pro­duc­tion was “ex­ceed­ingly low,” and says that it pro­vided enough food but that some of the la­bor­ers in 2017 were picky eaters.

Be­tween the blue­berry har­vests of 2016 and 2017, some­thing did change in Amer­ica. In Trump’s first year as pres­i­dent, ar­rests of im­mi­grants sus­pected of be­ing in the coun­try il­le­gally jumped 41%, stok­ing fear of de­por­ta­tion in im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties.

Such ar­rests ac­cel­er­ated fur­ther in 2018, in­creas­ing 55% over 2016. Other ad­min­is­tra­tion poli­cies have eroded pro­tec­tions against la­bor traf­fick­ing — that is, com­pelling peo­ple to work through force, fraud or co­er­cion — ac­cord­ing to im­mi­gra­tion lawyers.

In short, worker ad­vo­cates say, Trump’s im­mi­gra­tion crack­down has be­come the nasty boss’ best friend. Ter­ri­fied of “la mi­gra,” more work­ers are putting up with un­paid wages, un­treated in­juries and var­i­ous forms of abuse, says David Weil, who was di­rec­tor of the U.S. La­bor De­part­ment’s Wage and Hour Divi­sion un­der Pres­i­dent Obama.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to quan­tify how em­ploy­ers’ be­hav­ior is chang­ing, but data from the Cal­i­for­nia La­bor Com­mis­sioner’s Of­fice of­fer a glimpse. Since Trump’s Jan­uary 2017 in­au­gu­ra­tion, the agency has re­ceived at least 172 com­plaints al­leg­ing that em­ploy­ers threat­ened to re­tal­i­ate against work­ers based on their im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus — il­le­gal un­der fed­eral and Cal­i­for­nia law. In 2014 through 2016, it re­ceived just 29 such com­plaints.

It’s not just Cal­i­for­nia. Au­drey Richard­son, an em­ploy­ment at­tor­ney with Greater Bos­ton Le­gal Ser­vices, says she sees far worse cases. “I don’t think it’s an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to call some of the cases we’re see­ing Trump slav­ery,” she said.

The White House and the U.S. De­part­ment of La­bor didn’t re­spond to re­peated re­quests for com­ment.

Even as the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hard line at the bor­der has led to tear gas and tur­moil, the agri­cul­tural guest worker pro­gram that brings for­eign na­tion­als to the United States on tem­po­rary visas has grown rapidly. Berry grow­ers are the lead­ing source of de­mand for the work­ers, gov­ern­ment data show, ac­count­ing for more than 10% of the 200,049 po­si­tions cer­ti­fied in 2017 and the 242,762 cer­ti­fied in 2018.

In 2017, Munger paid Con­tr­eras and his fel­low guest work­ers about $13 an hour, a rate set by the fed­eral De­part­ment of La­bor, state reg­u­la­tions and unions. Em­ploy­ers that use the guest worker pro­gram must cover costs for travel to the United States once the work­ers have com­pleted half the con­tract pe­riod — and then cover the trip home at the con­tract’s end. They must pro­vide lodg­ing and three meals a day, at min­i­mum cost to the work­ers. And they must pro­vide some work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion in­surance to cover ill­nesses and in­juries.

For Con­tr­eras, as for thou­sands of other Cen­tral Amer­i­cans, not all the rea­sons for head­ing north were eco­nomic. A sum­mer in the United States of­fered at least tem­po­rary es­cape from Na­yarit, a pocket of Mex­ico where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guz­man’s ar­rest had trig­gered a mur­der­ous turf war be­tween drug car­tels.

Con­tr­eras wanted a bet­ter life. He went to Cal­i­for­nia to sup­port his three young chil­dren and try to earn enough money for tu­ition for a med­i­cal imag­ing de­gree.

Not long after work be­gan, an ap­par­ent al­ler­gic re­ac­tion caused his face to swell and his throat to con­strict, Con­tr­eras says. His head pounded in the heat, but he pressed on. He watched an­other la­borer, Je­sus Solorzano Leon, try to keep work­ing through a sud­den fa­cial paral­y­sis.

Leon says he spent the last of his sav­ings on co-pays for in­jec­tions and doc­tors’ bills. Munger re­fused to pay for his trip home, so co-work­ers chipped in for his bus ticket, Leon says. Munger de­nies it sent sick work­ers back to Mex­ico with­out pay­ing for their trans­porta­tion.

Work­ers say their bosses had lit­tle sym­pa­thy for such ail­ments. “You came here to suf­fer, not for va­ca­tion,” a su­per­vi­sor named Jes­sica told the work­ers, ac­cord­ing to sworn af­fi­davits filed in the la­bor-traf­fick­ing law­suit. One ho­tel for the work­ers was rid­dled with bed­bugs, says Gio­vanna, the for­mer Munger la­bor man­ager.

After the Cal­i­for­nia har­vest, most of the Munger work­ers were bused 900 miles north to an­other of the com­pany’s blue­berry plan­ta­tions in Su­mas, Wash., called Sar­banand Farms. They were housed in a bar­racks-style camp, en­closed by a fence with a guard at the gate. Threats and abuse got worse, the work­ers say.

There, Munger su­per­vi­sor Nidia Perez ad­mon­ished them that only those “on their deathbeds” could miss work, ac­cord­ing to work­ers’ af­fi­davits. The warn­ing was re­in­forced by the sight of U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion agents in marked SUVs pa­trolling out­side the camp, a few miles from the Cana­dian bor­der. In her an­swer to the work­ers’ com­plaint, Perez, who is named as a de­fen­dant in the suit, ad­mits she told work­ers not to miss work “un­less you’re dy­ing” but de­nies she meant they shouldn’t take sick days or re­port med­i­cal prob­lems.

Pres­sure to pick faster in­ten­si­fied as sum­mer tem­per­a­tures reached the 90s and smoke from for­est fires en­veloped the fields.

In the din­ing hall, proctors marked work­ers’ hands when they went through the buf­fet line to en­sure no one got sec­onds, ac­cord­ing to af­fi­davits. When food ran out, some work­ers didn’t eat.

Munger often served spoiled meat and 3-day-old scram­bled eggs, says Maria Gal­lardo, who worked at Sar­banand as a cook and food server in Au­gust 2017. Gal­lardo says that when she pointed this out to one of the su­per­vi­sors, the woman told her “it doesn’t mat­ter.” As the camp pop­u­la­tion tripled to al­most 600 work­ers, the food bud­get didn’t keep up, she says. She thinks most of them left hun­gry. “It was very un­just,” says Gal­lardo, who was fired after 10 days on the job.

In court fil­ings, Munger has said that its food was nour­ish­ing and that work­ers com­plained only be­cause some had dif­fer­ent tastes. “Coastal work­ers pre­ferred seafood,” a fil­ing says. “Oth­ers pre­ferred carne asada.”

One man at Sar­banand was par­tic­u­larly skinny. Hon­esto Ibarra would eat only a few beans, no rice or meat, Gal­lardo re­calls. She asked him why. “I just don’t feel well,” he told her.

In truth, Ibarra had di­a­betes, and he’d ap­par­ently run out of medicine. In court fil­ings, com­pany of­fi­cials say he never dis­closed his con­di­tion to them.

On Aug. 1, Ibarra didn’t get up for work. He told a Munger of­fice as­sis­tant who brought all three meals to his bed­side that day that he had a headache and wanted to sleep it off. He called Mex­ico and told his wife he was go­ing to give his no­tice and come home, ac­cord­ing to Cor­rie Yack­ulic, the Ibarra fam­ily’s Seat­tle at­tor­ney.

The next morn­ing Munger man­ager Javier Sampe­dro re­jected Ibarra’s re­quest for the com­pany’s help to fly home and or­dered him back to work, ac­cord­ing to co-worker Bar­baro Rosas, one of the two named plain­tiffs in the la­bor-traf­fick­ing suit. That day, Ibarra col­lapsed in the field.

Sampe­dro asked the of­fice as­sis­tant to drive Ibarra to the emer­gency room, but the as­sis­tant re­fused and called 911, ac­cord­ing to Wash­ing­ton state in­ves­tiga­tive doc­u­ments.

Ibarra’s co-work­ers de­manded in­for­ma­tion in a meet­ing with Sampe­dro the next night. They warned the farm man­ager that oth­ers might col­lapse with­out more wa­ter and shade. Some asked why Munger pro­vided med­i­cal at­ten­tion only after work­ers were deathly ill.

On Aug. 4, about 60 of the work­ers didn’t show up for work, say­ing they were strik­ing for bet­ter con­di­tions. A day later, Munger fired them. Com­pany of­fi­cials cited “in­sub­or­di­na­tion” and told them they had an hour to leave camp be­fore Munger called po­lice and im­mi­gra­tion agents to take them away, ac­cord­ing to work­ers’ af­fi­davits. Os­car Con­tr­eras was among those fired.

Mean­while, Ibarra, 28, lay co­matose in a Seat­tle hos­pi­tal. He died two days later. The cause was com­pli­ca­tions from di­a­betes, ac­cord­ing to the med­i­cal ex­am­iner. A state in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that his death was un­re­lated to work con­di­tions.

After his death, Ibarra’s wife, Brenda, and their three kids were evicted from their home in the ru­ral Mex­i­can state of Za­cate­cas and had to move into a shack with no elec­tric­ity, ac­cord­ing to Yack­ulic, her lawyer. Munger gave noth­ing, she says.

Munger re­ferred ques­tions about Ibarra’s death to a state­ment Sar­banand Farms is­sued in Au­gust, which said the grower “fully sup­ported his fam­ily dur­ing this or­deal.” It added: “We are com­mit­ted to the well­be­ing of ev­ery worker.”

Most em­ploy­ers who use the H-2A tem­po­rary visa pro­gram com­ply with its rules, but a few un­scrupu­lous users tar­nish the rest, says Ja­son Res­nick, vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral coun­sel of Western Grow­ers, which rep­re­sents farm­ers in Cal­i­for­nia, Ari­zona, New Mex­ico and Colorado.

“We know Amer­i­cans are not will­ing to en­gage in la­bor-in­ten­sive agri­cul­ture at any wage, but if we’re go­ing to feed this coun­try, we’re go­ing to need to rely on for­eign la­bor,” Res­nick says. “We don’t want work­ers to be ex­ploited or de­nied ben­e­fit. But when some­one in­ten­tion­ally vi­o­lates the rules, it casts a pall on the en­tire pro­gram,” he added, re­fer­ring to the in­dus­try as a whole, not Munger specif­i­cally.

A bedrock prin­ci­ple of U.S. la­bor law is that ev­ery job holder, re­gard­less of im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus, en­joys equal pro­tec­tion from abu­sive em­ploy­ers. It’s il­le­gal to hire im­mi­grants who aren’t au­tho­rized to be in the coun­try, but it’s just as il­le­gal to pay them less than min­i­mum wage, skimp on over­time or make them work in un­safe con­di­tions.

Mean­while, the United States tra­di­tion­ally has been viewed as a sanc­tu­ary for vic­tims of la­bor traf­fick­ing. By law, im­mi­grant vic­tims can ap­ply for spe­cial “T” visas that al­low them to work in the coun­try for four years and ap­ply for per­ma­nent res­i­dency.

His­tor­i­cally, even if such a traf­fick­ing visa was de­nied, ap­pli­cants were no worse off. But that ended last year.

Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced in June that any­one re­jected for T visas must ap­pear in im­mi­gra­tion court for de­por­ta­tion pro­ceed­ings. And ac­cord­ing to im­mi­gra­tion and la­bor lawyers, the gov­ern­ment is mak­ing it harder to qual­ify for T visas.

Fed­eral law says “any cred­i­ble ev­i­dence” will be con­sid­ered in es­tab­lish­ing whether an im­mi­grant worker was a vic­tim of traf­fick­ing — lan­guage that has given ap­pli­cants wide lat­i­tude. But now Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials are pep­per­ing ap­pli­cants with re­quests for ev­i­dence, ef­fec­tively re­vok­ing any ben­e­fit of the doubt, at­tor­neys say.

In their traf­fick­ing claim against Munger, the Mex­i­can guest work­ers in Wash­ing­ton state claim that man­agers forced them to work with “a com­mon scheme of threats and a com­mon prac­tice of abus­ing the law to keep work­ers in the fields.”

The threats were so in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized, work­ers came to be­lieve they had no choice but to suf­fer abuse or find their way home, says Joe Mor­ri­son, their Seat­tle at­tor­ney. They also knew that by leav­ing early, they’d risk be­ing black­listed by la­bor re­cruiters for other U.S. firms.

Os­car Con­tr­eras is back in Na­yarit, earn­ing about $60 a week as a con­struc­tion worker and dream­ing of the col­lege de­gree he’d hoped to pur­sue. He didn’t hear from Munger’s re­cruiter last year.

Munger has said it did noth­ing wrong. It says the work stop­page after Ibarra’s col­lapse wasn’t a strike at all.

Sampe­dro, the su­per­vi­sor ac­cused of send­ing Ibarra back to the field, said in an af­fi­davit that many work­ers were al­ready sick when they left Mex­ico. He said that all work­ers’ med­i­cal com­plaints were taken se­ri­ously and that he or his as­sis­tant made as many as 15 trips with work­ers to the doc­tor that sum­mer.

After Ibarra’s death, in­ves­ti­ga­tors with the Wash­ing­ton state De­part­ment of La­bor and In­dus­tries in­ter­viewed dozens of the work­ers. Many said they felt forced to work while sick and in­jured, ac­cord­ing to state doc­u­ments. “Work­ers were told if they caused prob­lems or com­plained about any­thing they would never be con­tracted to come back to work,” one in­ves­ti­ga­tor wrote in a memo.

The state fined Munger al­most $146,000 for pro­vid­ing in­suf­fi­cient breaks and meal pe­ri­ods, the largest fine ever levied for those vi­o­la­tions in Wash­ing­ton state. A lo­cal lawyer, serv­ing as a tem­po­rary state judge, cut the fine in half. He cited the fact that Munger kept good records.

Jae C. Hong As­so­ci­ated Press

THE U.S. IM­MI­GRA­TION crack­down is the nasty boss’ best friend, worker ad­vo­cates say. Above, work­ers pick broc­coli in Salinas.

Evan Vucci As­so­ci­ated Press

AN EM­PLOY­MENT at­tor­ney with a Bos­ton le­gal ser­vices group says, “I don’t think it’s an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to call some of the cases we’re see­ing Trump slav­ery.”

Gre­gory Bull As­so­ci­ated Press

A WESTERN GROW­ERS of­fi­cial says that “most em­ploy­ers who use the H-2A tem­po­rary visa pro­gram com­ply with its rules.”

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

A BLUE­BERRY grower’s treat­ment of guest work­ers in 2017 drew fines in Cal­i­for­nia. But Munger Bros. as­serts, “Em­ploy­ees are treated well and are paid well.”

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