Farm worker advocates filed suit Tuesday against a Santa Paula labor contractor, alleging that he failed to fully pay foreign workers brought to Ventura County earlier this year under a controversial federal program designed to offset labor shortages.
In what was believed to be the first large-scale use of the guest worker program in California agriculture, labor broker Ralph De Leon received permission from the federal government to recruit 38 Mexican laborers to pick lemons from February to April in the county's citrus heartland.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 10 of those laborers in Ventura County Superior Court, accuses De Leon of failing to compensate workers for the hours spent traveling to and from job sites and for the time spent waiting at those locations to begin harvesting, as required by state law.
The suit also alleges that De Leon failed to properly pay overtime, frequently neglected to provide rest periods and lunch breaks and failed to reimburse some workers for expenses incurred traveling to and from Mexico.
But proponents of the guest worker program suggest that the suit could be aimed at torpedoing efforts by California growers to bring in more foreign workers.
The suit seeks reimbursement for unpaid wages and other restitution totaling about $250,000, said Oxnard attorney Hector Martinez, whose poverty law firm, California Rural Legal Assistance, is spearheading the legal action.
"There are substantial abuses that have taken place," said Martinez, adding that the lawsuit is not an attack on the guest worker program but an attempt to ensure that the workers are paid what they are owed under California law and the terms of their contract.
"Basically," he said, "we're talking about promises made to these workers that should have been kept."
De Leon, whose Servicios Agricolas Mexicanos supplies workers to growers across the United States, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
But the 25-year veteran of the labor contracting business said in a recent interview that he turned to the guest worker program after being unable to find enough domestic pickers to work Ventura County's citrus harvest.
The federal program, established under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, allows agricultural producers to temporarily tap foreign workers when domestic laborers are unavailable.
California growers say that legal immigrants are increasingly leaving the fields for more stable jobs. As a result, the statewide farm labor force--500,000 workers during peak season--is swelling with illegal immigrants.
As required by the federal government, De Leon said he first posted the job openings with state employment offices but found few takers. He then traveled to Mexico to recruit workers and to bring them back to Ventura County under what are known as H-2A visas.
Once they arrived, De Leon said, he provided them with housing, three meals a day and transportation to and from job sites. And while workers were guaranteed to earn at least $7.56 an hour, De Leon said most averaged $9 to $10 an hour.
Not all the laborers worked the entire length of the contract, which ended April 19.
De Leon said he lost $3,000 in what he called a pilot project aimed at determining whether the program could work for California growers.
He said it was a price he was willing to pay, however, to find a solution to the state's farm labor shortage and to end the exploitation and abuse of illegal immigrants seeking work in the United States.
"I'm trying to provide an option to those workers who are risking their lives crossing the border and who come here only to live in deplorable conditions," De Leon said in May.
While unfamiliar with specifics of the lawsuit, farm industry attorney Rob Roy said he believes the suit may be motivated, in part, by a push to undermine growers' efforts to expand the guest worker program.
Roy, president of the Ventura County Agricultural Assn., said that California Rural Legal Assistance and other advocacy groups have made clear their disdain for the employment program.
"I think [De Leon] engaged in this H-2A program in good faith and in an effort to demonstrate that someone could properly operate this program and bring these workers out of the shadows," Roy said. "And his thanks for that is a lawsuit."
California Rural Legal Assistance attorneys maintain that the lawsuit was not motivated in any way by the larger issues facing the future of the federal program. Martinez said the lawsuit focuses mostly on wage and hour issues on behalf of 10 named plaintiffs and the 28 other workers recruited by De Leon who might also have been underpaid.
It also raises other issues, ranging from whether the laborers were given all the work they were promised to whether they were unfairly saddled with tough production standards.
Other farm worker advocates, unconnected to the lawsuit, said that the legal action underscores possible flaws in the employment program.
"The problems described in the lawsuit are emblematic of the problems experienced elsewhere under the guest worker program," said Bruce Goldstein, co-executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund in Washington, D.C.
About 45,000 foreign farm workers are admitted to the United States each year through the federal guest worker program, with most working in sugar cane fields in Florida and tobacco farms in North Carolina.
Neither federal nor state labor officials keep track of how many agricultural guest workers come to California each year, but officials believe it is no more than a few hundred, with most brought in to tend livestock on sheep ranches.
Goldstein said it is unsettling to him that this first major use of the program in California agriculture has resulted in litigation.
"There are abuses all over in agricultural employment," Goldstein said, "but in some ways the guest workers are the most vulnerable."