RALEIGH (April 20, 2022) – In March, Legal Aid of North Carolina and the North Carolina Justice Center assisted ten migrant farmworkers in obtaining court approval for the final settlement in their human trafficking case. The ten agricultural workers were employed through the federal H2A visa program. They filed the complaint against the labor contractor and the growers for whom they worked, alleging that the contractor enticed the workers to pay large recruitment fees for the opportunity to work lawfully in the United States for his farm labor contracting business. The workers arrived in North Carolina to find little available work and substandard living conditions.
Because the ten named Plaintiffs brought this lawsuit under the Fair Labor Standards Act, other similarly situated workers were able to opt in and join the lawsuit after it was filed. With the help of the Consulate General of Mexico in Raleigh and the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations, 40 other workers who had worked for the Defendants learned of the lawsuit and elected to join as opt-in Plaintiffs.
The Plaintiffs previously resolved their claims against two other grower defendants in the case, Cottle Farms, Inc., and Winzeler Farms, LLC. The March settlement requires the remaining Defendants—labor contractor Francisco Valadez, Jr. and his company Francisco Valadez, Jr. LLC, and North Carolina agricultural operations Goldsboro Milling Co., Inc. (formerly Sleepy Creek Farms, Inc.) and GMC Legacy, LLC (formerly Goldsboro Milling Co.)—to pay a total of $120,000 to the ten named Plaintiffs and the 40 opt-in Plaintiffs for their alleged unpaid wages and for damages under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). It also requires them to pay the Plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and costs and make extensive changes to the way they do business in the future.
Plaintiff José Rolando Moshan-Martinez noted, “This settlement is a big moment. It is a signal to all of the H-2A workers who come to North Carolina to work and who may be scared, a signal that they do have rights and power to do big things when companies are violating their rights.”
The Plaintiffs alleged that they and hundreds of others recruited by Valadez and his company in 2018 arrived in debt because of the visa costs, travel costs, and illegally charged recruitment fees they had incurred in Mexico. They further alleged they were not reimbursed for these costs, violating federal and state law. In the complaint, the Plaintiffs described various uninhabitable and dangerous housing conditions: for several days, some workers were housed in a parked bus and then outdoors, and others were housed in decrepit labor camps with soiled mattresses, snakes in the barracks, and no hot water. The Plaintiffs alleged that one labor camp was padlocked shut, preventing workers’ easy entry and exit. In addition, the housing was located in remote rural areas with limited to no cell phone signal. The Plaintiffs described threats of serious harm to compel their work in the blueberry fields and further threats from the Valadez Defendants’ agents in North Carolina and Mexico after their escape.
In addition to the financial disbursement, the Defendants must comply with a number of provisions ordered in consent decrees entered by U.S. District Judge Louise Flanagan. The Valadez Defendants may not employ H-2A workers for three years, may not possess or control any workers’ passports, and must comply with federal payroll recordkeeping requirements. Grower Defendants will be required to pre-pay costs associated with bringing H-2A workers to the state and must comply with reporting, payroll, and licensing requirements. Goldsboro Milling must take steps to improve Wi-Fi availability in their labor camps. All Defendants must post signs in their labor camps in Spanish and English, reinforcing the rights of housing occupants to have visitors. They must post additional signage published by the North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission advising workers of emergency resources. Grower Defendants may no longer lock the gate to their labor camp when occupants are inside.
North Carolina Justice Center Senior Attorney and co-counsel Carol Brooke applauded their clients’ bravery and persistence in fighting to improve working conditions for other North Carolina migrant farmworkers.
“Nearly four years after our clients arrived in North Carolina to appalling living and working conditions, it is gratifying to finally resolve their claims in a way that will help protect other farmworkers from future human trafficking and minimum-wage violations,” said Brooke.