08 Sep Black Farmworkers Sue Mississippi Farm for Racial Discrimination, Lost Wages, and Abuse of Immigration System to Deny U.S. Workers of Jobs
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
SEPTEMBER 8, 2021
CONTACT: Patrick Taylor, email@example.com
The case is just one example of Southern farm owners illegally using the H-2A visa program to deny Americans work and exploit Black labor
SUNFLOWER, Miss. – On Wednesday, six Black farmworkers from Mississippi sued Pitts Farms Partnership — one of the largest farms in Mississippi — for discriminating against them in favor of white foreign workers, costing them thousands of dollars in unpaid wages and lost job opportunities. The lawsuit (view the complaint here), filed by the Mississippi Center for Justice and Southern Migrant Legal Services, also alleges that Pitts Farms illegally used the federal government’s H-2A visa program, which allows U.S. farmers to hire foreign workers only when no U.S. workers are available to do the job.
The six plaintiffs are Black Mississippi Delta natives who worked as seasonal farmworkers for Pitts Farms or truck drivers for a Pitts subsidiary. Two of the plaintiffs worked a combined 43 years for the operation. According to the suit, starting in 2014, Pitts Farms began hiring exclusively white workers from South Africa through the H-2A visa program. After entering the program, Pitts Farms kept the plaintiffs on, and even had them train the H-2A workers, while paying its Black workers $2-$4 less per hour. Overt racism was also common on the job. One supervisor in particular frequently used racial slurs, including the n-word.
When one of the plaintiffs asked to be compensated equally to the white foreign workers, Pitts Farms turned him down. Eventually, Pitts Farms stopped employing several of the plaintiffs altogether and hired more white foreign workers.
“The H-2A program allows American farmers to supplement labor shortages by hiring foreign labor when no U.S. workers are available,” said one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Amal Bouhabib of Southern Migrant Legal Services. “It does not allow farmers to pay their American workforce less than the foreign workers, or to replace willing and able U.S. workers.”
“With the unemployment rate in the Delta hovering at around 10 percent, it is unacceptable and unlawful that local farmers are looking to hire foreign labor before people in their own communities. Unfortunately, this case is emblematic of a disastrous pattern in the South. Our research indicates that farm owners are increasingly abusing the H-2A program and denying opportunities to U.S. workers,” said Ty Pinkins of the Mississippi Center for Justice. “The case also reflects our nation’s deep, ugly history of exploiting Black labor. For too long, powerful businesses have abused Black Americans for profit.”
The suit asks the court to find that the employer violated the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and federal anti-discrimination laws, and that it breached its employment contracts with the plaintiffs.
According to the lawsuit, Pitts Farms once employed a majority Black workforce drawn from Sunflower County, which is over 70% Black. In recent years, however, Pitts Farms began recruiting and hiring only white farmworkers from South Africa, a country that is over 80% Black. In 2020, the lawsuit says, Pitts Farms laid off most of the plaintiffs while it recruited more white H-2A workers than ever.
In addition to discrimination, the lawsuit claims that Pitts Farms’ failure to pay its Black U.S. workers at the same wage rate as its white H-2A workers violated federal law. According to the suit, Pitts Farms was required to pay both its foreign workers and its Black U.S. workers between $9.87 (in 2014) and $11.83 (in 2020) per hour. While Pitts Farms paid its white H-2A workers at these rates, it paid its Black American workers the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, with a one-dollar premium for weekend work. Pitts Farms’ truck drivers were paid $9 an hour.
The lawsuit also says that Pitts Farms should also have offered the jobs to its U.S. workers at the higher rate before it could hire foreign labor to fill the positions.
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.