The migrant farm workers toiled alongside one another in July’s historic heat, trudging through central Nebraska cornfields as part of their 12-hour shifts detasseling corn for a Monsanto contractor.
Though the 54 workers worked the same job, their paychecks varied vastly, according to claims filed last week with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. None of the workers — all of them legal U.S. residents of Latino origin — made what they were promised by contractors working for Monsanto, according to the discrimination claims.
Many of them made less than minimum wage — and were paid less than their white counterparts in other farm fields, according to the EEOC claims.
Now, Legal Aid of Nebraska has filed discrimination claims on behalf of the 54 workers.
Andrew Stock, one of the attorneys who is handling the case, said the claims were different from similar wage disputes over seasonal workers in that Legal Aid of Nebraska will seek punitive damages by arguing that Monsanto discriminated based on the workers’ race and national origin.
Monsanto, one of the nation’s leading agricultural companies, said it had yet to receive copies of any claims.
“Monsanto is committed to insuring that all seasonal laborers supporting our business receive the pay and benefits they are promised,” Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher said, “and the pay and benefits provided exceed what is required by law.”
The dispute gives a glimpse into the vast and varied labor force of seasonal farm workers like corn detasselers.
Whether they’re busloads of teenagers working a summer job or migrant workers who stay in motels and travel the Midwest, detasselers are often paid by the acre as an incentive to get more work done. However, under federal law, such pay cannot amount to less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
Contractors typically promise much more than minimum wage.
The contractor named in this case, Antonio Villanueva of Texas, did not answer phone calls.
Stock said Villanueva recruited the workers by telling them they each would make $90 an acre detasseling corn — and could make as much as $1,000 a week.
So the 54 workers traveled — most by bus, some by car — the 1,100 miles from the southern Texas town of Weslaco to central Nebraska to work in fields and stay in motels near Wood River, Neb., and Minden, Neb.
The workers quickly realized something wasn’t right with their pay, Stock said. Family members working side by side received wildly different dollar amounts on their checks — for the same work, Stock said. Some were paid $45 for a 12-hour shift, he said, while a co-worker was paid $135.
And workers soon found that standards for pay fluctuated. In each field, supervisors define how many rows of corn make up an acre. At first, the workers say, Villanueva told them that four rows would made up an acre. He then increased it to eight rows — and later to 12, Stock said.
When workers went to Villanueva to complain, he told them to “work harder” if they wanted more pay. “They were basically told, ‘Love it or leave it,’” Stock said.
Such a proposition is easier said than done, he said. Not only did the workers fear losing any pay owed to them, but they also had little resources or recourse. Their homes in Weslaco, Texas, were a 20-hour bus ride away — a ride that could cost as much as $200. And their next jobs were in another state.
The workers said they believed Monsanto and its subcontractors “cheat them” out of wages because they don’t speak English and have limited formal education. The claims allege that such treatment doesn’t happen to white crews.
“The fact that they’re migrant puts them in an extremely vulnerable position,” Stock said. “. . .They’re really, more or less by circumstance, trapped.”
This isn’t the first set of claims against Monsanto. In late July, a group of eight migrant workers from the same area of southern Texas sued Monsanto over their living conditions and wages in Indiana.
And last year, another 16 migrant workers from Arizona sued, saying Monsanto had reneged on promises of free housing and certain wages for detasseling corn in Indiana during the summer of 2010. A settlement was reached on that lawsuit.
In the Nebraska case, the EEOC will spend the next six months investigating the claims. A lawsuit likely will follow.
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