Two South African immigrants are suing a Mississippi farmer over an alleged bait-and-switch scheme and violated federal minimum wage laws. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Two South African immigrants are suing a Mississippi farmer over an alleged bait-and-switch scheme where they were recruited for falsely advertised agricultural jobs and then underpaid for their work.

Plaintiffs Dennis Appel and Christopher Boshoff were recruited in South Africa to migrate to Mississippi for jobs operating farm machinery on Kyle Mills’ farm in Winona. The pair allege that when they arrived in 2019, Mills instead made them work an average of 95 hours a week driving tractor-trailer trucks, delivering grain and fertilizer to farms across the Southeast.

Mills told the federal government that his business needed temporary foreign farm workers because he could not find U.S. workers to take the job. The suit alleges that he had no intention of hiring U.S. workers, but instead wanted foreign workers to drive for his trucking company so he could pay them significantly lower wages. 

Mills paid the two plaintiffs $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.

Boshoff and Appel collectively spent thousands of dollars on transportation and H-2A visa costs to take the job. The lawsuit alleges that Mills refused to reimburse their pre-employment costs, a requirement under the H-2A program, after they arrived. Without the means to return home, they felt they had no choice but to work for Mills even though the job was not what they signed up for. 

“When properly used, the foreign worker program protects companies, U.S. workers and foreign workers,” said Amal Bouhabib, a lawyer from Southern Migrant Legal Services who is representing 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 lawsuit, filed today in U.S. District Court in Greenville, alleges that Mills obtained Appel’s and Boshoff’s visas under false pretenses and violated federal minimum wage laws by paying them for agricultural work and not truck driving. The Mississippi Center for Justice and Tennessee-based Southern Migrant Legal Services filed the suit on behalf of the two immigrants.

“Our clients deserve to earn a fair wage for the work they did,” said Rob McDuff, an attorney at the Mississippi Center for Justice representing 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.”

READ MORE: Cameroonian immigrants in Adams County prison say they were tortured by ICE agents

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.