Labor: Missouri farmworkers kept in inhumane conditions

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Florida company kept more than 100 temporary farmworkers in "inhumane" and "unsanitary" working conditions while not paying them what they were due as they harvested watermelons in southeast Missouri, according to federal labor officials.

The U.S. Labor Department issued a preliminary injunction against Marin J Corp. of Avon Park, Florida, after witnessing conditions for 107 workers hired under the federal H-2A program, which allows foreign workers into the U.S. for temporary agriculture work, The Kansas City Star reported .

The company, owned by Jorge Marin, was responsible for housing, feeding and caring for the workers in Kennett, Missouri, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Memphis, Tennessee. The workers began in June and were to be paid $13.42 an hour, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

The company said in a statement that the H-2A program has many complex requirements that are substantially different to the rules for other employers. It said Marin J is cooperating with the investigation and is working to comply with requirements.

Labor department inspectors found 27 workers housed in a former jail with an unusable kitchen, limited windows, no drinking fountains or access to water beyond bathroom sinks, according to an affidavit. Another 80 workers were living in two houses Marin owned and a hotel that had too few beds, leaking toilets, standing water in restrooms and a barely functioning refrigerator, an investigator wrote in the affidavit.

While employees worked 12-hour days harvesting watermelons, they generally shared a Gatorade bottle for water and several workers "passed out from the heat due to dehydration," the inspector wrote. Washing and restroom facilities were "rarely provided" in the field and "workers frequently relieved themselves in the fields, without washing their hands," according to the affidavit.

Workers also "remain largely unpaid" and many have significant food bills, it said.

One group of workers told investigators they had received only two checks, for $340 and $120, after working nearly 20 consecutive days. The affidavit said the workers were taken to a bank where company representatives made them cash the $120 checks and return the money.

Marin J. Corp. has agreed to move the workers out of the former jail to a motel in Kennett, improve the two houses, and provide funding for food, adequate water and drinking cups, toilets and hand-washing facilities in the field.

The company also was ordered to maintain accurate payroll records, not threaten workers into making payments or kickbacks, and to allow workers to communicate with the Labor Department without fear of retribution.

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Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com