Morales v. Bimbo’s Best Produce

Antonio Morales et al.  v. Bimbo’s Best Produce, 8-cv-5105, U.S. Dist. Ct., E.D. La. (filed Dec. 2008)

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H-2A guestworkers who were trafficked into the United States from Mexico and subjected to forced labor in the strawberry fields bring claims against their former employer Defendants Bimbo’s Best Produce, Inc. and Charles Relan in Amite, Louisiana.

Upon arrival at the strawberry plantation, Defendant Charles Relan, the owner and operator of Bimbo’s, subjected the guestworkers to a scheme of psychological coercion, threats of serious harm, and threatened abuse of the legal process to maintain control over them and force them to continue laboring in his strawberry fields. Recognizing that the cruelty of these conditions would drive guestworkers to seek to escape, Relan illegally confiscated their passports and visas.

In addition to holding their passports and visas, Relan exploited his physical power and control and took advantage of the guestworkers’ geographic, linguistic, and cultural isolation. The guestworkers feared for their physical safety as Relan fired his shotgun over their heads, shot and killed a dog near the fields while guestworkers harvested, sprayed the guestworkers with pesticides, and physically assaulted at least one worker. Relan also threatened the guestworkers with unlawful arrest, eviction, and deportation and paid them less than the federal minimum wage.

Relan took advantage of the rules of the H-2A guestworker program—which renders guestworkers completely dependent on their sponsoring employer for legal status, employment, and housing—to further coerce and threaten the guestworkers.

The guestworkers were increasingly terrified and trapped in a situation of forced labor. They had no choice but to continue working at Relan’s strawberry plantation, even though they wanted to escape. Finally, when members of African-American and immigrant communities came forward to protect the guestworkers, the guestworkers escaped the slave-like conditions of Defendant’s strawberry plantation, and the guestworkers courageously reported Relan’s activity to the appropriate local and federal law enforcement authorities.

The guestworkers seek a declaration that their rights have been violated and an award of damages for Defendants’ unlawful conduct, including violations of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, (“TVPA”), the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), and the guestworkers’ H-2A employment contracts. The guestworkers seek this relief to make them whole for damages they have suffered and to ensure that they and other H-2A guestworkers will not be subjected by Defendants to such illegal conduct in the future.

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