Washington orchard violated foreign farmworkers’ rights, federal investigation finds

A Central Washington orchard operator is temporarily barred from hiring foreign farmworkers through a widely known visa program after a federal investigation found the company shirked its legal responsibilities, jeopardized workers’ safety and health and verbally abused them.

East Wenatchee-based Welton Orchards and Storage LLC was fined $64,120 for violations to the H-2A agricultural worker program, which allows people from outside the country to work in the U.S. agriculture sector on a temporary basis. An estimated 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers are employed across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The department’s Wage and Hour Division also recovered $7,485 in unpaid wages for 26 employees.

“Welton Orchards and Storage intimidated and threatened workers and put their livelihoods at risk as they violated many provisions of a federal program designed to assist the nation’s agricultural employers,” said Wage and Hour Division District Director Thomas Silva in Seattle.

Welton Orchards did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Federal investigators, along with the Northwest Justice Project, the state’s largest publicly funded legal-aid program, found that Welton Orchards and Storage LLC targeted H-2A workers on a frequent basis with abusive and offensive language and routinely threatened to “send them back to Mexico,” the department said.

The company placed mattresses on the floor instead of providing beds and did not have working smoke detectors in worker housing, the news release said. The company did not pay for transportation to and from workers’ home countries or some visa-related fees as required by law.

Welton also stated that workers would get a certain number of hours when they signed contracts with employees. However, the company did not follow through on providing all those hours, leaving workers unable to pay for necessities for months at a time, the news release stated.

The federal government said that Welton at first didn’t comply with the investigation, later providing incomplete records that investigators supplemented with information gathered from workers.

Abigail G. Daquiz, Northwest Justice Project director of advocacy, said the organization is glad for the collaborative effort and the department’s ability to enforce rules to make sure worker rights are protected and employers are held accountable.

Northwest Justice Project advocates in Wenatchee helped bridge the gap between workers and the division during the investigation, Daquiz said, giving the agency access to the strong community relationships the organization has cultivated.

Workers often feel reluctant to share their information with governmental entities even in the face of exploitation, Daquiz said.

H-2A workers’ time-limited stay in the U.S. prevents them from integrating into the local community, leaving them especially vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking and abuse, she said. She has seen employers displace local workers with employees under an H-2A visa they can exert more control over, Daquiz said.

The Wage and Hour Division has investigated 735 cases involving H-2A violations within the past two fiscal years. It has issued $9.5 million in civil penalties and recovered $9 million in back wages for more than 13,000 workers in that time frame.

The division promises confidentiality to callers and provides a search tool for people who think they may be missing wages.

Article Source: The Columbian