28 Apr Black Farmworkers Sue Mississippi Catfish Farm for Racial Discrimination, Lost Job Opportunities, and Abuse of Immigration System to Deny Jobs to U.S. Workers
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 28, 2022
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Black Farmworkers Sue Mississippi Catfish Farm for Racial Discrimination, Lost Job Opportunities, and Abuse of Immigration System to Deny Jobs to U.S. Workers
Harris Russell Farms offers yet another example of Mississippi farm owners illegally using the H-2A visa program to exploit Black labor
Jackson, Miss. – Today, five Black Mississippi farmworkers sued a catfish farm in the Mississippi Delta, Harris Russell Farms (HRF), for manipulating the federal H-2A visa program to hire white Southern African workers and discriminate against the local Black workers, costing them thousands of dollars in unpaid wages and lost job opportunities. Read the full complaint here.
This is the second lawsuit filed by the Mississippi Center for Justice and Southern Migrant Legal Services in recent months challenging this discriminatory practice by agricultural operators in the Delta. The first lawsuit against Pitts Farms was the subject of a New York Times article examining this fraudulent use of the H-2A program, which has become more pervasive in the Mississippi Delta in recent years. Despite promising that they will pay domestic workers the same as the foreign workers, these operators underpay the local Black workers, prompting claims of discrimination in the lawsuits.
“The H-2A program is supposed to be used to aid American farmers dealing with labor shortages,” said Rob McDuff, an attorney for the plaintiffs from the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm committed to advancing racial and economic justice. “It cannot be used as a legal weapon to cheat American workers. Similar to our recent lawsuit against Pitt Farms, this case is emblematic of a dangerous pattern of local farms in Mississippi using the H-2A program to discriminate against Black farmworkers and displace them with an exclusively white workforce.”
“When employers intentionally underpay their domestic workforce and refuse to follow the federal laws protecting them, it hurts all workers, U.S. and foreign, as well as other law-abiding employers, “ said Amal Bouhabib, an attorney for the plaintiffs from the Southern Migrant Legal Services. “Our clients did the work; they deserve to make the wages they are owed and to work and live in safe and fair conditions.”
The five plaintiffs are Black Mississippi Delta natives who worked as farmworkers for Harris Russell Farms, cultivating and harvesting catfish. Beginning in 2019, according to the suit, Harris Russell Farms began to supplement its local workforce by hiring exclusively white South African workers under the H-2A program, which allows the hiring of foreign workers only when no U.S. workers are available to do the job. Federal laws require farmers to pay domestic workers the same rate and offer them the same job opportunities as H-2A workers. Nevertheless, the court filings claim that Harris Russell Farms paid the Black workers significantly less and gave them fewer hours.
“With poverty rampant in the Mississippi Delta, it is unacceptable that local farmers are hiring exclusively white foreign workers before their fellow Mississippians,” said Vangela M. Wade, President and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice. “Their failure to provide ample opportunity to laborers is symbolic of the discrimination that Black Mississippians face in the workplace.”
The suit asks the court to find that the employer violated the Migrant and Seasonal Worker and Protection Act and federal anti-discrimination laws by failing to offer their Black workforce the same wages and opportunities as the H-2A workers.
The Mississippi Center for Justice is a nonprofit, public interest law firm committed to advancing racial and economic justice. Supported and staffed by attorneys and other professionals, the Center develops and pursues strategies to combat discrimination and poverty statewide.
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.