COLUMBUS, Ohio - A legal victory in North Carolina could open the door to reforms that would protect farm workers in the Buckeye State as well.
A federal judge has given preliminary approval to the last of three settlements in a class-action lawsuit against growers who used a farm-labor contractor to cut labor costs - a contractor who shorted the workers' pay.
President of the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee Baldemar Velasquez said many labor contractors bring migrants to the U.S. on H-2A guest-worker visas, but aren't following federal regulations. He said those violations will eventually fall on the shoulders of farmers.
"They think they're distancing themselves from legal liability to hire these independent farm-labor contractors," said Velasquez. "But we've proven in the cases that we won in North Carolina, the 'joint employment' with at least several of the farmers. And I think the same thing is happening in Ohio. We just have to make the case."
The class-action lawsuit emerged after a failed attempt by FLOC members get the three defendants to agree to back wages, improved working conditions and collective bargaining rights.
The U.S. Department of Labor said the farm owners weren't responsible for the subcontractor's actions. FLOC is working now to collect money owed to the more than 200 workers.
Most farmworkers with H-2A visas are in the South, but Velasquez explained they're tied to networks all over the country.
"We know several big ones in Ohio that were here last year," said Velasquez. "One labor contractor had about 400 workers. Another one had over 200. And there were smaller ones, of course."
In 2019, the Labor Department found roughly 12,000 violations under the H2-A program, including about 5,000 workers cheated out of their wages . Velasquez predicted the exploitation could get worse .
"It just really underscores the fact that the Department of Labor doesn't have the capacity to enforce the law," said Velasquez. "That these fly-by-night labor contractors, they're hard to nail down, hard to track down their assets as a way to leverage them, to comply with the law."
FLOC is backing H-2A program reforms that would prevent contractors from exploiting workers.