05 Jan Black Mississippi Farmworkers Reach Settlements In Two Lawsuits
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 5, 2023
Press Contact: Rob McDuff, 601-259-8484
BLACK MISSISSIPPI FARMWORKERS REACH SETTLEMENTS IN TWO LAWSUITS OVER RACIAL DISCRIMINATION AND ABUSE OF THE IMMIGRATION SYSTEM BY DELTA FARMS
Jackson, Miss. — Today the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) and Southern Migrant Legal Services (SMLS) announced that their clients, 13 Black farmworkers from the Mississippi Delta, reached settlements in December with two Mississippi Delta Farming operations in two lawsuits alleging that the farms paid white workers imported from South Africa more money than they paid the Black workers from the Delta and gave the white South Africans more hours to work.
One of the lawsuits was brought by eight workers for Pitts Farms, a business that grows cotton, soybean, and corn. The other was brought by five workers from Harris Russell Farms, a catfish-growing operation. Both farms are in Sunflower County.
According to the lawsuits, the businesses obtained visas for the white South African workers by falsely claiming to the U.S. Department of Labor that they would pay local workers as much as any foreign workers and would offer employment opportunities to local workers first. The case against Pitts Farms was featured in an article in the New York Times.
In order to preserve their privacy, the workers agreed with the farms that the amounts of the settlements would be kept confidential. But lawyers for the farm workers emphasized their hope that these settlements will send a message to other employers.
“We are pleased that an agreement was reached to compensate our clients for the discrimination they suffered at these two farms,” said Amal Bouhabib, a lawyer with SMLS who represented the workers.“But many other Delta farms are engaging in these unlawful practices and more suits will be coming against those who do not pay fair wages to the local workers.”
“This particular form of discrimination is a recent manifestation of the age-old problem of exploitation of Black labor in America and particularly in the Delta,” said Rob McDuff, a lawyer for MCJ who also represented the workers. “These settlements are an important step and we are going to keep moving forward in an effort to eradicate these abuses throughout the Delta.”
In addition to filing these lawsuits, the two organizations also contacted the U.S. Department of Labor about the persistence of these practices in the Delta. In response, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh visited the Delta on June 30 and two months later, nearly 30 Labor Department investigators fanned out across the Delta to talk to farm owners and workers about the problem.
Subsequently, the Department of Labor announced that it had recovered unpaid wages of $134,532 for 45 workers at 11 Delta farms and levied fines of $122,610 against those farms.
“Our litigation campaign and the U.S. Government’s administrative enforcement have worked in tandem to improve the lives of many of these local farm workers,” said Vangela Wade, President and CEO of MCJ. “We look forward to continuing this campaign in the Delta and bringing some measure of justice to the workers who have been underpaid and mistreated for many years.”
Wade added: “This would not be possible without the brave actions of our farm worker clients who took a stand against these injustices and helped shine a light on them.”
The Mississippi Center for Justice is dedicated to dismantling the state’s culture of inequity and injustice. Supported and staffed by attorneys and other professionals, the Center develops and pursues strategies to combat discrimination and poverty statewide.
Southern Migrant Legal Services, based in Nashville, Tenn., is a project of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA). SMLS provides free employment-related legal services to migrant farmworkers who work in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.