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Miss. farm favored white foreign workers over Black locals - lawsuit

3 minute read

Soybeans in a field on Hodgen Farm in Roachdale, Indiana, U.S. November 8, 2019. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

  • Black farmworkers say Pitts Farms paid white South Africans more
  • Pitts also tapped foreign labor despite pool of qualified Americans
  • Farm accused of race bias, violating farmworker protection law

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(Reuters) - One of Mississippi's largest farms has been hit with a lawsuit claiming it violated federal law by paying white South African workers with seasonal agricultural visas more than Black U.S. employees and passing over qualified American workers in favor of foreign labor.

Six Black seasonal workers in a complaint filed in Mississippi federal court on Wednesday claim Pitts Farms Partnership paid South African workers with H-2A agricultural visas up to $4.50 more per hour than them to do the same work. The plaintiffs are represented by lawyers from a pair of nonprofits, the Mississippi Center for Justice and Southern Migrant Legal Services.

Mississippi-based Pitts Farms could not immediately be reached for comment.

Amal Bouhabib of Southern Migrant Legal Services said the H-2A program was designed for American farmers to address local labor shortages by supplementing with foreign labor.

“It does not allow farmers to pay their American workforce less than the foreign workers, or to replace willing and able U.S. workers," she said.

Pitts Farms operates thousands of acres of farmland in rural Sunflower County, Mississippi, where it grows cotton, soybeans, corn and other crops, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs said they all had worked for Pitts Farms seasonally for as long as 24 years, but that since 2014 the company has increasingly come to rely on the H-2A program for its workforce while passing over residents of the area, who are predominantly Black.

Federal regulations require employers to pay H-2A workers a premium over the minimum wage, and to pay equal wages to American employees who do the same jobs as visa holders.

But Pitts Farms for years paid Black U.S. farmworkers as little as the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and $9 for truck drivers, while paying South African visa holders as much as $11.83 per hour to do the same type of work, according to the complaint. The plaintiffs said they were underpaid compared to visa holders by thousands of dollars.

The workers also said their white supervisor frequently used racial slurs, including the "n word," when speaking about Black employees, and Pitts Farms ignored complaints about the conduct.

They accused Pitts Farms of violating the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (AWPA) by paying American workers less than H-2A workers and failing to make the same effort to hire U.S. workers as it did to recruit foreign labor.

The plaintiffs also claim PFP violated the Civil Rights Act of 1866 by giving preference to white workers and paying them more than Black employees.

They are seeking actual and compensatory damages and an order barring Pitts Farms from engaging in discrimination based on race or citizenship status.

The case is Reed v. Pitts Farms Partnership, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, No. 4:21-cv-00113.

For the plaintiffs: Robert McDuff and Reilly Morse of the Mississippi Center for Justice; Gregory Schell of Southern Migrant Legal Services

For PFP: Not available

Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.

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