In Trump era, fear a potent weapon for abusive bosses
Mexican guest workers and advocates report rising abuse and threats of retaliation
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.
THE U.S. IMMIGRATION crackdown is the nasty boss’ best friend, worker advocates say. Above, workers pick broccoli in Salinas.
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.”
A WESTERN GROWERS official says that “most employers who use the H-2A temporary visa program comply with its rules.”
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.”