Agents with the U.S. Department of Labor fined 11 Delta farms for misusing a popular visa program after a sweep of investigations in the wake of public outcry and a Missisisippi Today investigation that found Black local workers being underpaid and phased out of farm jobs in favor of white workers from South Africa.
“The allegations made by Mississippi Delta farmworkers are alarming,” Wage and Hour Division District’s Jackson director, Audrey Hall, said in a statement. “The outcome of these investigations confirms that employers denied many farmworkers their lawful wages and, in some cases, violated the rights of U.S. workers by giving temporary guest workers preferential treatment.”
Mississippi Today’s investigation found at least five farms who paid their local workers – usually Black men – less money per hour than those on farm work visas through the H-2A program – usually white men from South Africa – over the last few years.
The labor department’s Wage and Hour Division fined the 11 farms a total of $122,610 and recovered wages for 45 workers totaling $134,532 in its latest string of investigations.
Investigators found violations against both local workers and those working on temporary visas through the H-2A visa program. Delta farms have been increasingly relying upon foreign farm workers from South Africa over the last several years.
Agents found employers paid local workers lesser wages per hour than their foreign counterparts for the same type of jobs; failed to disclose all conditions of employment, including accurate anticipated hours and bonus opportunities; illegally deducted money from visa workers’ paychecks, including costs of travel; and did not keep proper records.
For the first time in 25 years, the Delta has its own Wage and Hour Division investigators stationed in Greenwood and Clarksdale. Prior to the recent hires, the nearest investigators were in Jackson.
“The Wage and Hour Division is determined to protect the rights of workers of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized and faced with persistent poverty and inequality,” Regional Administrator Juan Coria said in a statement.
The 11 farms are:
- Clark & Co. in Shelby
- Egremont Baconia Farms in Cary
- White Farms AJV in Marks
- Van Buren Farms II in Belzoni
- Bulldog Farms LLC in Tutwiler
- Custom Ag Services LLC in Isola
- Bruton Farms Partnership in Anguilla
- Durst Farms in Rolling Fork
- Carter Plantation LTD, in Rolling Fork
- Harris Russell Farm in Moorhead
- Murrell Farms in Avon
Harris Russell Farms was named in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Black local workers in April. The workers made up to $3.38 less an hour than their South African counterparts, according to the lawsuit.
The Mississippi Center for Justice first filed a lawsuit against Pitts Farms – which was also a subject of a DOL investigation – accusing the Sunflower County farm of underpaying Black workers in favor of white workers from South Africa last year.
Mississippi Today found that while the DOL did investigate Pitts, the investigations only examined two years of payroll. That left the men who lost out on jobs or pay outside that two-year window with little recourse.
It’s unclear if the latest string of investigations also only covered a two-year investigation period, which was the agency’s standard as of June. U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told a Mississippi Today reporter at that time the DOL would be examining how it handles H-2A investigations.
Pitts Farms workers described their mistreatment to Mississippi Today – including being paid less per hour to train their replacements – and then echoed their experiences during a public meeting with Walsh, who visited the Delta in June.
The H-2A program is intended to fill gaps in the workforce where enough local workers are not available. Meanwhile, the Delta has high percentages of unemployment.
The DOL described its Delta investigations “ongoing” in response to the allegations of wage theft and illegal displacement of local U.S. workers in Mississippi.
Workers who think they have been incorrectly paid or have questions about their rights in the H-2A program can call the Wage and Hour Division confidentially at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243).
Editor’s note: The Mississippi Center For Justice President and CEO Vangela Wade serves on Mississippi Today’s board of trustees.