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North Carolina Farmworkers Settle in Human Trafficking, Wage Theft Suit

Employer ordered to pay over $102,000 and change workplace policy

Downtown Four Oaks, where three NC farmworkers were allegedly held against their will in a migrant camp and forced to work without proper pay
Downtown Four Oaks, where three North Carolina farmworkers were allegedly held against their will in a migrant camp and forced to work without proper pay. (Photo by Indy Beetle/Creative Commons)

Three North Carolina farmworkers have reached a settlement worth more than $100,000 in a suit against their former employers that included disturbing allegations of human trafficking and wage theft carried out against migrant workers. 

The defendants in this case — farm labor contractors José M. Gracia Harvesting, Inc.; José M. Gracia; and Gracia & Sons, LLC, identified together in court documents as the Gracia defendants — are now required to pay the plaintiffs $102,500 plus attorneys’ fees and costs, according to a release from the Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Farmworker Unit and the North Carolina Justice Center (NCJC), which helped represent the plaintiffs. 

Defendants were also court-ordered to make extensive changes to how they do business in the ruling, which was approved by U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle on May 25. 

The plaintiffs, all women who were employed through the federal H-2A visa program, allege that, during their employment with the Gracia defendants, they were paid for only a fraction of the long hours they worked cooking meals for farmworkers while being subjected to poor and abusive working conditions. 

The plaintiffs allege agents of the Gracia defendants recruited them from Mexico to work for defendants in North Carolina as farmworkers, according to Monday’s release. The plaintiffs said they incurred significant debts for their visas and travel and, upon arrival in North Carolina, learned they were required to work in the defendants’ kitchens preparing and selling food while the male H-2A workers earned higher wages working in the field. 

According to attorneys with Legal Aid of NC and NCJC, because they were working as camp cooks rather than in the field doing agricultural labor, the plaintiffs should have been paid one and a half times their regular rate of pay for their overtime hours. Instead, they allege the Gracia defendants did not pay them at all for their overtime hours.  

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege that the Gracia defendants confiscated their passports, threatened them with criminal and immigration consequences if they were to leave, then forced them to work in an environment where they experienced verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment, unpaid wages, extremely long hours and food deprivation. 

According to Carol Brooke, senior attorney with the NC Justice Center, the allegations made in the Gracia case are all too common in her field. 

“Unfortunately, human trafficking and wage theft are not uncommon in the agricultural industry in North Carolina, and are particularly prevalent when H-2A labor contractors bring workers on temporary visas,” Brooke told Queen City Nerve. 

The suit stated that one of the plaintiffs fled from the migrant camp shortly after arriving there, while the other two allege they worked upwards of 100 hours a week with no overtime pay. In the complaint, one plaintiff described suffering intentionally inflicted burns and other physical injuries and being prevented from leaving the camp.

In addition to the financial settlement, the Gracia defendants must now post signs in their labor camps reinforcing the rights of housing occupants to have visitors in Spanish and English. They are also required to develop and disseminate a comprehensive sexual harassment and sexual assault policy and post additional signage published by the North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission advising workers of emergency resources. 

Additionally, the Gracia defendants must post signs explaining that persons employed as cooks are entitled to overtime pay. They’ve also been ordered to use an electronic timekeeping system for camp cooks to ensure they provide overtime pay to all of those workers. 

The Gracia defendants are prohibited from possessing or controlling their employees’ passports or identification documents and are required to provide timely reimbursement to all their H-2A workers for their travel and visa expenses.

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“It was important for us to come out of this case making the future better for others that come to work after us,” stated plaintiff Yesica Velasco-Lopez in Monday’s release. “Other workers won’t have to suffer like we did.” 

“It was important for there to be signs up in the labor camps with phone numbers that workers can call for help,” she continued. “Workers should not be afraid if they need information about their rights. There are people that can help them.”

While Brooke is relieved that it appears some justice will be served in this case, she told Queen City Nerve her hope is that other contractors around the state and country take a lesson from it as well. 

“Our clients are hopeful that future employees of the defendants in this case will not experience the same types of abuses, and we are optimistic that other farm labor contractors and farms will see from this case that human trafficking and wage theft can lead to serious consequences for employers,” she said.

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