Company housed Missouri farmworkers in ‘inhumane and unhealthy’ former county jail

Missouri farmworkers who were housed in an “inhumane and unhealthy” former jail, employed in “unsanitary work environments” and then paid less than they were owed have gotten help from the U.S. Labor Department.

Marin J Corp. of Avon Park, Fla., consented to a preliminary injunction that federal labor officials sought after witnessing the plight of the company’s 107 temporary farmworkers near the Missouri Bootheel town of Kennett.

Led by Jorge Marin, the company was responsible for the workers’ housing, feeding and care under the federal H-2A program, which allows foreign workers to enter the United States for temporary employment in agriculture. Certificates issued to the company showed the workers began in June and were to be paid $13.42 an hour, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

Inspectors found 27 workers housed in the former jail, which Jorge Marin had bought and local Jaycees previously used for Halloween events, an inspector’s affidavit said. It said the city of Kennett had deemed the former jail “fit for occupancy” by 62 adults last month and that Marin J Corp. immediately began moving workers in. They had been living in a Budget Inn.

The affidavit described the kitchen in the former jail as unusable: “Inadequate access to external light, extremely limited windows in the ‘cells,’ broken ‘non-cell’ windows, inadequate/non-existent storage for the H-2A workers, no drinking fountains or other access to water beyond bathroom sinks, only lukewarm water available throughout the facility, inadequate bathroom ventilation, an absence of laundry facilities, non-functional bathroom lights, leaking sinks and a mattress on the floor.”

An additional 80 workers were living in two houses Jorge Marin owned as well as the hotel, the affidavit said. There were too few beds, forcing Marin employees to take turns between the available mattresses and the floor, the investigator wrote.

In one of the houses, the refrigerator was “barely functional,” forcing the employees to keep milk and other perishable foods in the freezer compartment, the affidavit said.

Toilets leaked and left “mold or fungal growth” and standing water in restrooms. Toilet paper was lacking.

During the day, the Marin J Corp. employees harvested watermelons, working 12-hour days, the affidavit said.

A water cooler provided drinking water, but there were no cups on the day of inspection, so workers had to share a used Gatorade bottle. The temperature had reached 88 degrees by 11 a.m. that day with a heat index above 100 degrees, it said.

According to the affidavit, interviewed employees said several workers had “passed out from the heat due to dehydration,” and the inspector noted that workers forced to share a drinking cup often underhydrate because of hygiene concerns.

Interviews also showed that washing and restroom facilities were “rarely provided” in the field, according to the affidavit, and “workers frequently relieved themselves in the fields, without washing their hands.”

For their effort, the workers “remain largely unpaid” and many had accrued “significant bills” for food, the affidavit said.

One group of workers told investigators that they had worked nearly 20 days in a row and received only two checks, one for $340 and one for $120. The affidavit then described a scene in which those workers were bused to a bank where company representatives required the workers to cash the $120 checks and return the money.

In the order, Marin J. Corp. agreed to move the workers at the former jail to a motel in Kennett.

The company consented to a preliminary injunction in which the court ordered the removal of workers from the former jail; improvements to the two houses; funding for food; and proper drinking water, cups, toilets and hand-washing facilities in the field.

Marin J Corp. also was ordered to maintain accurate payroll records after investigators found that inadequate documentation left unclear how much workers were and should have been paid.

The order also requires that the company “shall not threaten or coerce” the workers “into making payments or kick-backs of any kind” or from keeping the workers from “exercising their rights to communicate fully and freely with Department of Labor investigators without fear of retribution.”

An attorney representing Marin J Corp. issued this statement:

“The H-2A program under which Marin J Corp. is being investigated by the US Department of Labor allows agricultural employers to hire temporary foreign workers to perform work that they cannot find US workers to perform. There are many complex requirements in this program, including an obligation on the part of employers to provide housing at no charge to the workers and to pay special wage rates, now at least $13.42 per hour in Missouri. These and other requirements are substantially different from rules applicable to other employers.

“Marin J worked out terms of an Order that has allowed it to provide housing for its workers in a motel complex that regularly provides housing for other agricultural workers, and the company is in the process of verifying compliance with the US Department of Labor’s pay and other requirements for these jobs. Marin J is committed to compliance with these requirements and to cooperating with the US Department of Labor.”

The Labor Department said the H-2A program ensures that Americans have the first opportunity to fill available jobs and that employers who don’t follow the law gain and “unfair advantage” over other employers.