25 Mar Agricultural Workers Sue Mississippi Farm Owner for Defrauding Government, Unpaid Wages
JACKSON, Miss. – South Africans Dennis Appel and Christopher Boshoff came to northern Mississippi in 2019 on H-2A agricultural visas, believing they would be working on Kyle Mills’ farm in Winona.
Instead of planting corn and soybeans on Mills’ farm, Mills made them work an average of 95 hours a week driving tractor-trailer trucks to farms across the Southeast – and paid them about 40% less than the rate for truck drivers.
Appel and Boshoff sued Mills and his company in U.S. District Court in Greenville, Miss., on March 25 for committing H-2A visa fraud and unpaid wages. The suit was filed by the Mississippi Center for Justice and Southern Migrant Legal Services.
According to the lawsuit, Mills and Mills Trucking & Custom Harvesting LLC obtained Appel’s and Boshoff’s visas by falsely telling the U.S. government they needed temporary foreign farmworkers because they could not find U.S. workers to take the job.
Mills had no intention of hiring farmworkers, the suit alleges. Instead, he wanted the foreign workers to drive heavy trucks for Mills Trucking – but not pay them the prevailing wages for truck drivers.
According to the suit, Mills paid Appel and Boshoff $11.33 an hour — the hourly wage rate set by the federal government under the H-2A visa program for agricultural work—and not the $18.25 paid to local truck drivers.
“When properly used, the foreign worker program protects companies, U.S. workers, and foreign workers,” said Amal Bouhabib, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. “But when employers lie about the work, U.S. workers miss out on good job opportunities, foreign workers are exploited, and law-abiding employers are at a competitive disadvantage.”
The suit asks the court to find that the employer violated federal minimum wage laws, committed fraud against the workers, and breached the employment contract with Appel and Boshoff.
Appel and Boshoff were recruited in South Africa and told they would be operating farm machinery on Mills’ farm. The wage rate typically paid to foreign farmworkers is set by the federal government and was $11.33 an hour in Mississippi in 2019. Boshoff and Appel collectively spent thousands of dollars in transportation and visa costs to take the job.
When they arrived in Mississippi, Mills told them they would instead be driving heavy trucks to haul grain and fertilizer throughout the Southeast. Mills also refused to reimburse their pre-employment costs, a requirement under the H-2A program. Having collectively spent thousands of dollars to take the jobs, Appel and Boshoff felt compelled to keep working for Mills, despite the bait-and-switch.
The lawsuit alleges that if Mills had accurately described the work as truck driving, he would have had to offer, advertise, and pay a substantially higher wage rate. Because the plaintiffs worked as truck drivers instead of farmworkers, they are owed the higher wage rate.
“Our clients deserve to earn a fair wage for the work they did,” said Rob McDuff of the Mississippi Justice Center, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “When employers are allowed to hire and then underpay foreign workers, it creates a cycle that favors the use of the H-2 program and depresses wages for all Mississippians.”
“We hope this lawsuit will help ensure the system is working fairly for all workers,” McDuff added.
Mississippi Center for Justice is a non-profit, public interest law firm committed to strengthening racial, social, and economic justice in Mississippi by dismantling the systems that strip opportunity away from historically disadvantaged Mississippians. MCJ does this through a potent combination of direct legal services, strategic policy advocacy, targeted community education, and media outreach. MCJ takes on many of the challenges facing the most defenseless within our community by working to create a better future for Mississippi through dedicated legal campaigns centered around healthcare, fair housing, consumer protection, education, immigration, disaster recovery, and impact litigation.
Southern Migrant Legal Services, a project of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) based in Nashville, Tenn., provides free employment-related legal services to migrant farmworkers who work in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. TRLA provides free legal services to people who cannot afford an attorney in 68 counties in South and southwestern Texas. TRLA attorneys specialize in disaster assistance, family, employment, landlord-tenant, housing, education, immigration, farmworker, civil rights, and other areas.