The Los Angeles Times’ recently reported on Del Monte’s $1.2 million discrimination settlement. Del Monte is a major grower of fruits and vegetables; hires employees to harvest the products; and then ships the products to stores for our enjoyment and consumption. Unfortunately, Del Monte along with a number of labor contractors had a growing problem with discrimination in its pineapple fields. In 2011, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought a national origin discrimination lawsuit against the producer and contractors on behalf of Thai immigrants recruited to work in Del Monte’s Hawaiian pineapple fields. After two years, Del Monte settled the lawsuit agreeing to pay $1.2 million to the mistreated workers, to promote “fair treatment of farmworkers,” to instruct its labor contractors to follow all labor laws, and to inform its foreign workers of their employment rights.
The treatment of the immigrant farmworkers spurred the lawsuit and the added conditions in the settlement. The EEOC’s lawsuit claimed that the labor contractors Del Monte used to recruit farmworkers exploited Asian immigrants, particularly those from Thailand, from 2003 to 2006. The exploitation started even before employment started, when the contractors charged the men excessive fees just to get the job. The exploitation continued with deplorable housing conditions, inadequate cooking facilities and food, and wage theft. To make matters worse, the farmworkers faced threats of physical violence and deportation if they complained about the conditions or pay. The lawsuit did not claim that Del Monte encouraged or even advocated this behavior, but it did claim that the company “knew or should have known” about its contractor’s mistreatment and exploitation of the workers and stopped it.
Exploitation of farmworkers is not a new concept, but the level of exploitation and the location of the exploitation in this story is probably a bit shocking. As the lawsuit illustrates, the stereotypes of exploitation and discrimination are far narrower than reality. While the lawsuit brings light to the extent of farmworker exploitation, the settlement provides equal insight into steps to avoid and prevent future abuses.
Knowing Your Rights
Avoiding and ending exploitation and employment rights violations is a two-way street. First the employer has to know and decide to comply with state and federal laws. Second, employees need to know their employment rights so that they will know when those rights have been violated. Many of the state and federal labor departments provide or require the displaying posters with information on employee rights. In the case of the immigrant farmers from Thailand, it is very likely that, even if there were posters, they would not know that they had employment rights or that their employers were violating nearly all of those rights. And it is fairly obvious that the contractors decided not to comply with employment laws. Both sides had roadblocks. Hopefully, other major producers and farm labor contractors will adopt methods similar to those in the settlement.
Wage theft and employment rights violations are serious and stressful issues, contacting an HKM employment attorney can take some of the stress out of the situation.