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Migrant workers sue West Michigan blueberry farm, alleging labor trafficking

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Two migrant workers from Mexico have filed a lawsuit against First Pick Farms in West Olive, Michigan. The civil complaint with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan says the plaintiffs were illegally moved to the West Michigan farm from where they were lawfully working at a farm in North Carolina in the summer of 2017 under the H-2A program, which allows foreign nationals to fill temporary agricultural jobs in the United States.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs say they worked twelve hour days without breaks, much of which was uncompensated. The complaint also describes the housing provided for the workers as “substandard”. The plaintiffs said that 30 individuals shared a single family home with no beds, sharing one bathroom and one kitchen. The plaintiffs were also forced to pay $20 a week for the accommodations.

The lawsuit alleges that First Pick Farms violated the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act and the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act.

The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center is representing the plaintiffs.

Attorney Gonzalo Peralta is a staff attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

He says that these laws are supposed to ensure farms supply migrant workers with adequate housing and fair hours and help workers set standards when they are traveling for an agriculture job. In this case, the plaintiffs say those standards were not met.

“There are federal laws like the Agricultural Worker Protection Act that are meant to ensure that individuals know what they're getting into before they travel these long distances, and work for these particular employers. And that's where exploitation can happen,” Peralta said.

According to the civil complaint, when the farm workers were removed from the farm they were working for under the H-2A program, their field supervisor at First Pick Farms told them that “immigration authorities would be alerted if any workers raised any complaints,” about the working and living conditions.

“No employee should be made to work under threat from their employer, regardless of where they're from or what they look like,” Peralta said.

First Pick Farm did not reply to requests for comment.

Taylor Bowie is a senior studying English Literature at the University of Michigan and an intern in the Michigan Radio newsroom. She is originally from Owosso, Michigan.
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