SALINAS, Calif. — Charging that migrant farm workers must live in holes in the ground, abandoned portable toilets and cardboard shacks, a legal aid group and 12 fieldworkers filed suit against a Salinas-area farmer Monday to force better living and working conditions.
The lawsuit charges that strawberry grower Jose Ballin violated an agreement with workers to provide them with housing. It also alleges that he pays the illegal aliens below minimum wage and no overtime.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Monterey County Superior Court, seeks an unspecified amount of back pay for the workers.
Lydia Villarreal, an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, held a news conference at the farm Monday and showed reporters burrows where, she alleged, some workers must sleep, a barren hill that serves as a latrine for about 100 farmhands, and an area around a campfire that serves as their kitchen.
Ballin appeared at the conference and told reporters that he, indeed, provides water and housing for the workers. He said some of the farm workers who filed suit are "squatters" who actually work on other farms. He could not be reached for additional comment.
Villarreal said about 40 workers live in "caves" dug into the side of a hill at the farm. She said the burrows are large enough for two to five workers to crawl inside and sleep.
"Aside from the caves, there are little shacks made out of cardboard, slats of wood and corrugated aluminum," she said in a telephone interview. "They live in these, and they also have bedding nestled in among the tractors . . . in open-air garages. People also sleep in old wooden portable toilets. They've turned them on their sides and they sleep in them."
Cooking Area Described
She said the cooking area "looks like something out of a war zone. There's a little campfire with a little shelving around it. There is some protection from the wind."
Workers shower in the open air with water from a pipe extending from a water tank, she said.
She said the legal aid group was first approached by a few farm workers, who were told they could be deported or fired from their jobs if they fought the abuses. The workers talked it over with fellow workers and a larger group returned to the California Rural Legal Assistance offices, she said.
The legal aid agency is asking the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service to not take action against the illegal aliens because other mistreated workers will be afraid to come forward, Villarreal said.
"Instead of punishing the abuser, we'd be punishing the abused," she said.