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Michigan Correspondent


CASSOPOLIS, Mich. — A group of migrant workers has sued Pioneer Hi-Bred International and others for alleged labor violations stemming from the 2012 growing season.

The original complaint was filed on May 30 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan Southern Division. It alleges a bevy of complaints, including wage violations, violations regarding the proper posting of workers’ rights and housing violations.

The workers, mostly from Texas, were recruited by Pioneer to work in southwestern Michigan while they were still out of state, detasseling and roguing corn crops in Cass County. Christopher Varner and Jerry Varner are also named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Roguing and detasseling is labor-intensive work performed on the corn while it is still planted in the field, in rows that can be between a half-mile and a mile long. Among the complaints leveled against Pioneer is it violated the workers’ rights by providing false and misleading information at the time of recruitment regarding the terms and conditions of employment; failed to provide potable water; failed to provide toilets and hand-washing facilities while the plaintiffs worked in the fields; and failed to pay workers for all the work they performed.

According to the complaint, the workers involved read only Spanish and have limited English proficiency in verbal communication. At the time of recruitment "none of the migrant worker plaintiffs were given a written disclosure of the complete terms and conditions of employment, in any language," but were told they would receive a $120 stipend upon arrival, free housing, earn at least $9 an hour, have employment beginning on a specific date and have 4-6 weeks of employment.

They did not, however, receive the stipend in question upon arrival, the complaint alleges, and weren’t paid for all the work they did on an hourly basis. Also, they weren’t paid for travel time to and from work, the complaint says.

It also states the defendants didn’t keep proper records. It says the workers were paid with money deposited onto debit cards they were issued, instead of with a check or cash. Migrants weren’t permitted to work the promised 4-6 weeks, it adds.

Regarding housing, the complaint says the so-called Varner Camp where they stayed had a gas leak; had inadequate cooking, refrigeration, food storage and food preparation facilities; that it was overcrowded; and that it had an insufficient number of beds, unsanitary mattresses, inadequate laundry facilities, inadequate ventilation and inadequate shelter construction.

The workers are asking for financial compensation totaling at least $6,400, plus actual damages, costs and attorneys fees. The case is being brought by Farmworker Legal Services, a division of Legal Services of South Central Michigan.

A spokeswoman for Pioneer issued the following statement regarding the lawsuit: "Because litigation is currently pending between (the Plaintiffs) and DuPont Pioneer, we believe the litigation is the correct forum to provide specific comment with respect to the allegations raised by (the Plaintiffs).

"Pioneer denies the allegations and believes they are unfounded. We do have a longstanding, successful history of employing agricultural workers for Pioneer in Michigan and other states."

According to the latest court document, filed Aug. 20, Jerry Varner and Christopher Varner deny having been employers or contractors for purposes of the violations and claim to have been employees of Pioneer. They also deny the housing in question failed to comply with the established standards, and that it was licensed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. They also assert the housing was provided to the workers free of charge.

According to the document, submitted by both plaintiffs’ and defendants’ attorneys, everyone has agreed to try to settle the case before it goes to trial. The case is Alvarez, et al. v Pioneer Hi-Bred Pioneer International, Inc., et al.