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January 2022, Volume 28, Number 1

Florida, Southeast

Privately owned US Sugar, which farms 200,000 acres of sugar cane in southern Florida, offered to buy Texas-based Imperial Sugar for $315 million in March 2021. The US Justice Department opposed the deal, arguing that the result would be too much consolidation in sugar refining in the southeastern states. US Sugar sells refined sugar through United Sugars Corp, a marketing cooperative owned by a handful of producers.

Georgia. The federal government’s Operation Blooming Onion charged Maria Leticia Patricio and 23 others with human smuggling and labor trafficking in South Georgia, alleging that they charged fees to the H-2A workers they recruited in Mexico and Northern Triangle countries, required them to pay for housing while in the US, and paid the H-2A workers as little as $0.20 a bucket to harvest onions in southern Georgia.

The 24 defendants, including Charles King of Kings Berry Farms and Stanley McGauley of Hilltop Packing, allegedly received over $200 million from their activities between 2015 and 2021. Patricio and the other defendants were certified by DOL to fill over 71,000 jobs with H-2A workers over seven years. Most of the H-2A applications sought certification to fill 50 to 300 jobs.

Most of those charged with trafficking are former farm workers and supervisors who returned to their communities abroad to recruit H-2A workers. Since they knew what workers earned in the source communities, and what they would earn in the US, they were able to charge workers for H-2A jobs. Two-thirds of the job certifications in FY20 in Georgia went to FLCs.

Rep David Scott (D-GA), chair of the House Ag Committee, called on federal agencies to step up their enforcement of H-2A regulations.

A 24-year old H-2A worker, Miguel Ángel Guzmán, died in June 2018 near Moultrie, Georgia from heatstroke while picking tomatoes at MGI Farms. OSHA fined Beiza Brothers Harvesting $10,300, which was not paid because Beiza went out of business and became a truck driver earning $15 an hour. Beiza paid $150,000 in back wages to 184 H-2A and US workers in 2017.

FLCs are 10 percent of US employers of H-2A workers, account for a quarter of violations found by WHD, and are certified to fill about 45 percent of H-2A jobs.

Guzmán and his fellow H-2A workers paid $700 each to a recruiter in Mexico to cover the cost of travel to the US consulate in Monterrey and another $190 for their H-2A visas. US employers can require H-2A workers to pay their own travel costs to US workplaces, but must reimburse them once the workers arrive. Most US employers pay their H-2A workers’ travel and visa costs.

Beiza paid piece rates for picking tomatoes and urged harvest workers to work fast. Beiza’s supervisor said that he was not trained on how to deal with heatstroke, and quit after Guzmán’s death to work at a lumber company. In July 2018, Beiza bussed the H-2A workers to Racine, Wisconsin, where they worked long hours and were not paid promptly.

Beiza’s H-2A workers went on a short strike in August 2018 at Borzynski Farms, a 7,000-acre operation in several states. Borzynski, who previously used FLCs who violated H-2A regulations, said that Beiza was the sole employer of H-2A workers on its farms in 2018. DOL debarred Beiza from the H-2A program in 2018.

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