Several dozen migrant workers from Mexico came to Kentucky in 2013 to work in the tobacco fields as part of a federal program for guest workers. But now they have filed three federal lawsuits in Scott, Monroe and Nicholas Counties as a result of their poor working conditions and illegal employment practices by the farms that hired them.
The lawsuits now claim that between that year and now, 39 of the workers were paid extremely low wages, lived in squalid conditions and were threatened with deportation or jail if they complained. But employers on five different farms allegedly confiscated passports for workers, as well, effectively holding them prisoner while they worked on these farms.
Through the federal H-2A visa program, which allows U.S. farmers to hire workers if they can’t fill the job openings with American citizens, employers are supposed to provide their workers with adequate housing and wages.
Yet the conditions inside homes for the workers included infestations of lice, bedbugs and rodents; inadequate or missing indoor plumbing; and no mattresses or furniture. Some employers also charged workers illegally for their own travel costs, visas, rent and utilities and took funds from their already meager wages.
The average farm costs about $109,359 to run annually, including expenses such as purchasing farmers insurance and paying workers. In Kentucky, the legal base rate for farm workers was $10.10 per hour as of last year.
Migrant workers who filed lawsuits, however, were only paid $7 per hour in cash and were then forced to use some of it to pay $2,000 each for their visas, $180 for transportation from Mexico and $80 for rent. If they complained, farm owners would threaten the workers with deportation or jail.
At one farm, pay was even lower: workers were paid a “piece rate” of 45 cents per tobacco plant cut, and 38 cents for every plant they stripped. The amounts workers received fell far below the federally allowed pay rates.
A Nashville, TN, legal aid group, Southern Migrant Legal Services, called the practices “forced labor” on par with human trafficking. In one lawsuit, the defendant is listed as Conley-Morgan, a law group from Lexington, which had handled the paperwork and allegedly lied to workers about the working conditions they could expect and coerced them into staying on the farms.
Two of the farms named in the suits are McKenzie Farms in Stamping Ground, Scott County, operated by Gene and Austin McKenzie, and a farm in Monroe County operated by Tracy Dillard of Fountain Run. The other three are in Nicholas County and include Planck Farms and B.S. Land and Cattle Co., operated by Earl Lee Planck, Jr., and High Point Farms, LLC, operated by John D. Watkins.
According to Caitlin Berberich, one of the lawyers representing the migrant workers, Kentucky is one of the top states that takes advantage of the H-2A program, but that also results in the Nashville advocacy group getting a high volume of calls from workers in the state.
The use of guest workers in southern states, especially, is on the rise, said Berberich, who explained that, “Unfortunately, many employers see the H-2A program as a way to obtain a captive labor force that is unlikely to complain about illegal working conditions.”