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Unpaid Wages Lawsuit: Mexican guest workers shortchanged on Louisiana sugar cane farms by Arkansas labor company.

15 September, 2020

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Lawyer sues company over unpaid wages  In the state of Arkansas, Lawyers of Mexican guest workers sue Louisiana sugar cane farm over unpaid wages

An Arkansas company is being accused of "rampant wage theft" by a civil rights group. According to the civil rights group, the Arkansas company that supplies foreign guest workers to Louisiana sugar cane farms since 2016 has continuously stolen staff wages.

In a lawsuit against Lowry Farms Inc., lawyers with the Southern Poverty Law Center claim that many schemes were used by the company to shift its business cost and also underpay over 2,000 Mexican workers that they often received less than the $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage.

In the lawsuit filed on August 6 in a District Court in El Dorado, Arkansas, in the US, Lowry Farms is accused of failing to provide promised reimbursement to its workers for lodging and transportation to get from Mexico to Louisiana. They also couldn't pay for their visa applications and border crossing fees, including one that cost $6.

The work hours of workers were undercut after the workers arrived in Louisiana, and Lowry did not make provision for their lodging and transportation for their Mexico trip back home, which cut into their last paycheck.

The workers farmed across Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and the swath of south and central Louisiana. The farms where they worked were outside Baton Rouge, in Belle Rose, Paulina, and Plaquemine; south and southeast of Lafayette, in Jeanerette, Patterson, Cheneyville, Evergreen, LeCompte, Port Barre, St. Landry, Napoleonville, federal worker applications show.

In a statement made by Janet Anne Hernandez Anderson, "Lowry Farms uses the guest worker program to exploit workers by grossly underpaying them and forcing them to work under unfair and unacceptable conditions."

In the lawsuit against the unpaid wages of the farmers, no Louisiana Farms or Farmers are identified as defendants. Only Lowry Farms of Hermitage, Arkansas, and its owner: Michael Clayton Lowry is identified.
Bernabe Antonio Benito and James Jimenez Martinez are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that seeks class-action status against Lowry Farms. Both Mexicans left their families and homes to work in Louisiana during the sugar cane planting season.

A season when Louisiana's third most valuable agricultural commodity is planted. A commodity worth $1.02 billion. Only forestry and poultry were bigger than sugar cane in 2018. 24 parishes of 460,00 acres were planted with sugar cane, which accounts for nearly 47% of the nation's sugar cane production, which was almost 1.9 million. LSU AgCenter reports.

Between mid-July and mid-October from 2016-2019, Lowry Farms brought in the temporary workers for hand planting of sugar cane under a federal program which was designed to help fill seasonal demands in agriculture, the lawsuit says.

This federal program, known as H-2A, requires companies seeking temporary workers to certify there is a labor shortage and that foreign workers' employment will not depress U.S. workers' income doing the same job.

The lawsuit claims that Lowry Farms received the U.S. Department of Labor's approval to bring in the workers between 684 to 866 from 2016-2019 but then took steps that violated promises to the government was made. Also, the suit claims that those promises also amounted to contracts with the workers.
This led to an agreement of the contract between Lowry Farms and Louisiana farmers that the farmers will be paid by the acre planted. But this contract was not honored by Lowry Farms as the instead paid by the piece of cane planted, the suit alleges.

Under the H-2A program, Lowry Farms was supposed to keep records of the time the workers planted to ensure that they were not paid less than the federal government's required to pay no matter how long it took.

This would mean that foreign guest was to receive between $12.09 and $12.46 per hour after subsistence cost and transportation have been included with hourly wages.

But Lowry workers made less than the minimum wage after the unpaid reimbursement for transportation, lodging, and visa fees and the under-reported work hours.

Farmers who could be identified through the 2019 application records could not be reached by deadline Monday. A farmer who was reached declined to comment Monday.

The office manager of Lowry Farms in Arkansas, Renee Ferrell, declined to comment directly on the lawsuit, saying neither she nor Lowry had been served yet.

However, Ferrell admitted that Lowry Farms had used the federal H-2A program well and has "thousands and thousands and thousands" of pages of documents demonstrating legal use of the program. She said that some of the best farmers in south Louisiana had hired the company for years.

According to her, "if we were doing something we are not supposed to be doing, they would not have stayed with us for that many years."

Unpaid wages, damages, attorneys' fees, and a court order that Lowry Farms broke the Fair Labor Standards Act while violating the workers' contract are the demands of the workers.

An unpaid wages lawyer in California commented, “The lawsuit against Lowry Farms over unpaid wages is one that looks to cost the company a big fortune if things turnout good for the unpaid wages lawyer of the Mexican workers.”

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