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US Immigrant workers sue large food manufacturer

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The Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) has filed a lawsuit designed to force one of the US largest food providers to take responsibility for mistreatment of its workers.

The class action was filed by Center attorneys on behalf of migrant farm workers who were underpaid while working in South Georgia for subsidiaries of the US food giant Del Monte.

Mexican guest workers and domestic immigrant farm workers who were hired to work for Del Monte in Georgia's Wheeler and Telfair counties are the plaintiffs. They were recruited by the company for planting and harvesting vegetables from 2003 through till the current season.

Guest workers are brought legally into the US from other countries on special visas under the H-2A visa program, which allows them to work only for the employer who requested them.

The workers were promised and were entitled to receive the Adverse Effect Wage Rate. This is set by the US Department of Labour each year to ensure foreign workers do not negatively impact the wages of the domestic labour force. The plaintiffs left their homes and families, and paid their own way to work for Del Monte.

The immigrant workers were then cheated out of the wages to which they were entitled to, the lawsuit states.

"This case is particularly significant because it aims to combat a disturbing trend by large corporate growers importing workers," said IJP director Mary Bauer. "Increasingly, those corporations attempt to evade responsibility for their workers by having middlemen submit the applications for H-2A workers, instead of the wealthy corporations doing so themselves."

"Most corporate growers rely on their sub-contractors, the undercapitalised contractors whose assets consist of a bus and maybe a piece or two of equipment, to file the H-2A applications," said attorney Greg Schell of the Migrant Farm worker Justice Project in Florida, who is serving as local counsel on the case.

"Del Monte and others turn a blind eye when workers are underpaid and abused, by claiming that the workers are solely the employees of the middlemen," Schell said. "In fact, the workers labour on fields owned by Del Monte, live in housing provided by Del Monte, and are Del Monte's employees in every important respect."