Legal Mexican migrant workers sponsored through a federal guest worker program in Kentucky tobacco fields were housed in squalid conditions, paid less than the guaranteed wage, and prevented from leaving, three recent lawsuits allege.
Under the federal H-2 visa program, temporary legal workers are sponsored to to do lesser-skilled jobs in the United States. H-2A visas, generally reserved for agricultural work, are valid for one year; H-2B visas, generally used for low-skilled or seasonal work, are valid for ten months, with the chance to extend visa renewals up to three years. H-2 visa holders are considered non-immigrants and cannot be put on a pathway to citizenship. Though they can legally work in the country, they’re dependent on employers to keep their visas valid.
The lawsuits allege that Kentucky employers abused the federal H-2A visa program, luring Mexican farm workers to work in their tobacco fields with promises of adequate housing and good pay that never materialized.
Between 2013 and 2015, guest workers at the farms where the exploitation reportedly took place were paid less than the the current federal minimum wage of $7.25, even though the H-2A visa program requires for employers to set a base wage according to state regulations. In Kentucky, the rate was $9.80 per hour in 2013, going up to $10.10 this year.
Another lawsuit indicated that workers were charged “$2,000 for their visas, $80 per month in rent and $180 for the cost of their transportation from Mexico to Kentucky,” according to Fox News. However, the Department of Labor requires employers to cover the cost of travel, visas, and any associated costs of transportation from the housing to the job site. The DOL also requires workers to receive “an offer of employment for a total number of hours equal to at least 75 percent of the work period specified in the contract.”
Other abuses alleged in the lawsuit include instances of farmers taking away workers’ passports and threatening them with arrest or deportation by immigration authorities. One suit alleged that “workers lived in rat-infested housing that had leaking sewage due to improperly maintained toilets. The house also lacked sufficient ventilation and heating,” Fox News reported.
The plaintiffs in the case consisted of 39 Mexican guest workers who were sponsored under the federal H-2A visa program. The defendants in the lawsuits include five Kentucky tobacco farms located in Scott, Monroe, and Nicholas counties.
Kentucky tobacco farms have some history with mistreating guest workers. Earlier this month, another Kentucky tobacco farm had to pay over $28,000 to settle back wages and civil penalties to 21 Mexican H-2A workers. Those workers alleged that the farm didn’t pay required rates and didn’t reimburse them “for gas used to travel to and from the worksite,” Law 360 reported. The publication also reported that the farm failed to provide workers “with adequate water supplies, toilets and hand-washing facilities, which federal laws dictate must be within a quarter-mile from the work site.” And last year, a Kentucky tobacco farm was fined $3,500 “for serious worker health and safety violations” after the Southern Poverty Law Center alleged that “the company failed to protect employees hanging tobacco at heights as high as 30 feet.”
A recent Economic Policy Institute report found that temporary legal guest workers, like H-2A workers, are just as likely to be subjected to low wages as undocumented workers. One issue stems from the fact that H-2 visas are “tied to [individuals’] employers, therefore they cannot change employers or jobs while working in the U.S,” the study author said.
The monthly compensation levels for H-2A workers should be closer to those of green-card holders, since their employers are required to provide amenities like housing and transportation. But when employers shortchange H-2A workers, their monthly compensation becomes more similar to unauthorized workers’.