The U.S. Department of Labor announced Tuesday it will aggressively pursue employers and others abusing workers and worker-visa programs and increase protections for American workers.

An Arizona farm accused of housing its workers in “inhumane” living conditions is at the center of a federal crackdown on worker-visa fraud and abuse.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced Tuesday it will aggressively pursue employers and others abusing workers and worker-visa programs and increase protections for American workers. 

G Farms near El Mirage, which brought in workers through the H-2A temporary agricultural program, housed its workers in converted school buses and semitruck trailers with beds stacked end to end and with inadequate ventilation, among other violations, according to court records and a U.S. Department of Labor statement.

Daytime temperatures in the housing units exceeded 100 degrees, the Labor Department said.

The department also raised concerns that the workers were inadequately paid.

“What G Farms is accused of doing is simply inhumane,” Labor Department Secretary Alexander Acosta said in a statement on Tuesday. “No worker deserves to be treated this way. And honest employers cannot compete against those who break the law by underpaying and mistreating their workers.”

Michael King, an attorney representing G Farms and its owner Santiago Gonzalez, said the housing conditions were “out of necessity.” G Farms learned that hotel rooms it booked weren’t available as workers arrived in late April. 

U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Rayes granted an injunction May 19 ordering G Farms to make housing and transportation available for the workers, to pay them no less than the hourly rate of $10.95, and to prohibit the withholding of wages.


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‘Makeshift labor camp’

G Farms was cleared to hire 70 workers to harvest potatoes, watermelons and onions between April 2 and July 31, according to a court filing.

The farm initially committed to house employees in “eight mobile barrack-stile” (sic) rooms at the farm site. A separate mobile unit would be a kitchen and another a shower facility. That site didn’t pass inspection by the Arizona Department of Economic Security. The application was amended and listed 30 rooms at Woodspring Suites hotel on Sweetwater and 89th avenues in Peoria as the new housing site, according to a court filing.

With that, the visa application was approved.

It’s unclear how the Department of Labor got further involved, but inspector Kristina Espinoza visited the farm on May 4 and 5 and documented the living conditions.

In a court filing, Espinoza describes the G Farms facility where workers lived and worked as “a makeshift labor camp.”

Espinoza said three school buses were used as sleeping quarters, housing 10 workers each on beds lined up in two rows. Another two semitrailers had bunk beds with no windows. Other workers slept in an open-air shed apparently made of removed seats from the school buses.

Some of the housing units didn’t provide appropriate air conditioning and posed fire hazards and exposed employees to electrocution.

A fourth school bus was the kitchen, with a refrigerator, a sink and two gas-powered burners connected to propane tanks sitting outside the buses, Espinoza said.

A cargo container had nine “filthy” shower stalls that weren’t properly connected to a sewage system and posed a risk of electrocution.

Espinoza said after investigators visited G Farms, workers were threatened with not being hired in the future if they spoke with the government.

G Farms’ attorney King blamed the situation on a Wyoming-based firm, LeFelco, that helped Gonzalez obtain the visas. King, in an email to The Arizona Republic, said LeFelco was responsible for planning the housing for migrant workers.

Justin Greenberg, an attorney representing LeFelco, said the company should not have been named in the suit because it had no power over workers’ pay or housing conditions.

The Department of Labor website says the employer must provide housing at no cost to the workers.

On May 9, Espinoza said she received a voicemail from a worker who said G Farms was requiring workers to pay for their room and board, according to a court filing.

Concerns over pay 

The Department of Labor’s court filing alleges G Farms didn’t keep accurate records of hours worked and didn’t pay workers the minimum agreed wage of $10.95 per hour.

King said G Farms corrected the discrepancy once identified.

The preliminary injunction stipulates that G Farms pay its migrant workers between $0.13 and $0.70 per bag, depending on whether the harvested onions are clipped, graded or merely loaded or unloaded, or $10.95 per hour if the “per bag” earnings fall below that rate. 

The investigator also reported that G Farms didn’t record hours worked — only the number of sacks filled. 

G Farms employees were supposed to work from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, but Espinoza’s report says employees worked six days per week for as long as 10 hours.

Growing number of visa workers

The Labor Department certified 5,391 H-2A workers in Arizona in fiscal 2016, compared to 2,110 in fiscal 2011, according to department data.

The program is for seasonal workers, generally for a period of 10 months or less, to provide farms with “short-term agricultural labor when the number of available domestic workers is insufficient.”

The Department of Labor cited the G Farms legal action as the first of more to come.

Erik Nicholson, national vice president of United Farm Workers, welcomed greater oversight. He said H2-A visa agricultural workers are vulnerable to abuses because risking being firing also means risking deportation.

“One of the challenges of this program is that the person’s visa is tied to one employer, and the moment they are fired, they are no longer allowed to be in the country,” Nicholson said.

The Department of Labor said it would continue investigating the agricultural company through its Office of Inspector General.

“Entities who engage in visa program fraud and abuse are breaking our laws and are harming American workers, negatively affecting Americans’ ability to provide for themselves and their families,”  Acosta said in a statement.

The department said it would continue to work with the departments of Justice and Homeland Security to further investigate and detect visa-program fraud and abuse.


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