The U.S. Department of Labor announced it will aggressively pursue employers and others abusing workers and worker-visa programs and increase protections for workers. A previous version of this video incorrectly identified the location of G Farms.
Marcos Carreon Lopez works packing watermelons for a West Valley farm where federal investigators said they found “simply inhumane” housing conditions.
Carreon Lopez, 41, arrived in late April and spoke Tuesday night from a hotel room in Peoria where several of the workers broughtfrom northern Mexico to harvest onions, watermelons and potatoes through a temporary work-visa program are living.
He called the school buses and semitrailers where he and others were previously housed “precarious,” but stopped short of criticizing the conditions.
“Look, if they put me under the sun right now … it won’t matter. We want to work,” Carreon Lopez said, licking from his fingers a few cilantro leaves he had just chopped and were stuck to his wet hands. He was cooking his lunch for the next day: ground beef with cilantro, onions, tomatoes and hot peppers.
Other workers interviewed by The Arizona Republic shared similar sentiments, a mix of gratitude, necessity and resignation for the work in the fields.
A U.S. Department of Labor investigator’s visit to G Farms near El Mirage in early May found three school buses and two semitrailers used as sleeping quarters, a fourth school bus equipped as a kitchen and a cargo container with shower stalls, according to the lawsuit filed by the Department of Labor.
Federal officials also argue G Farms underpaid workers – who came from Mexico through the temporary H-2A agricultural worker visa program.
The Mexican consulate had notified the Labor Department about housing conditions at G Farms after it received complaints, prompting the federal investigation, Department of Labor spokesman Jose Carnevali said.
“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.”
G Farms attorney Michael King said after federal investigators said it was unacceptable to house workers in buses and trailers, the employees were quickly moved to hotels. He also said underpayments to workers were corrected.
‘Whatever we can get’
Leaning on the door frame of his hotel room, Carreon Lopez — who lives in the Valle del Fuerte region in the Mexican state of Sinaloa — explained why he wasn’t bothered about living in makeshift beds when he first arrived.
“Where we come from, there’s not much to do right now,” Carreon Lopez said. “What we want is to work and to get paid, and we are here already so… now it’s whatever we can get.”
He said the onion harvest already ended, and now workers are harvesting watermelons.
If he could, Carreon Lopez said he would work a longer season to provide for his two children and wife, who is pregnant with their third child. G Farms was authorized to bring in 70 workers for nearly four months, from April 2 to July 31.
G Farms pays migrant workers $10 per ton of watermelons picked or packed, between $0.13 and $0.70 per bag of onions, depending on whether they are clipped, graded or merely loaded or unloaded, or $10.95 per hour if the “per bag” or “per ton” earnings fall below that rate. The federal government sets the amount of minimum pay.
Back in 1969, G Farms owner Santiago Gonzalez, a defendant in the lawsuit, moved to Arizona also seeking economic gains in the agricultural fields of the West Valley.
Gonzalez and his mother, father and five brothers came to Arizona to farm to pay for a chunk of land in Mexico.
The family scrimped and saved, Gonzalez told The Republic in 2008. He recalled that he often went barefoot because the family couldn’t afford sandals.
After about 10 years, most of Gonzalez’s family returned to Mexico but he and his two younger brothers stayed in Arizona. In 1986, they bought the farmland near El Mirage and turned it into a successful producer of onions, watermelons and potatoes.
For almost a decade, Gonzalez has also marketed and distributed the premium 3 Amigos Tequila made and distilled from his family’s agave plants in Mexico.
“The Gonzalez family is the nicest bunch of people you’ll ever meet and they will never do anything to harm anyone,” King, the attorney, said.
The G Farms workers on temporary visas who spoke to The Republic said Gonzalez treated them with respect. Some said they worked at G Farms last summer and were housed in apartments.
“He has treated us very well, his family members that work there, too. Everything with the work is good,” Carreon Lopez said. “I think (the initial housing conditions) was the fault of the intermediaries.”
That’s what King contends.
King said Wyoming-based LeFelco firm, which recruited the workers and assisted G Farms in the H-2A visa application process, was contracted to, among other services, provide housing for employees.
LeFelco attorney Justin Greenberg declined to comment about the housing agreement between the firm and G Farms when reached by phone Wednesday.
A copy of the contract provided by King reads, “LeFelco will be responsible in the offering of housing options for all new recruits in their initial place of employment. This applies only to LeFelco recruited workers that have not been referred by Client.”
Greenberg said Tuesday morning LeFelco shouldn’t be part of the lawsuit because it had no power over housing conditions and workers’ pay.
Monitoring work conditions
The Department of Labor cited the G Farms legal action as the first visa-program fraud and abuse investigation of more to come.
The Arizona Department of Economic Security’s responsibility is to review housing conditions as one of the final steps before workers arrive under the visa program, according to DES.
G Farms had planned to house workers at the farm, according to its initial application. G Farms later amended the housing to a hotel in Peoria on Feb. 18, according to court documents.
A DES employee told a Labor Department employee in March that the change was made because “the housing did not pass inspection,” according to court documents.
King, the attorney, disputed the account.
He said DES never inspected housing at the farm because their staff was “too busy,” so arrangements were made with a hotel.
DES spokeswoman Connie Weber couldn’t confirm G Farms requested an inspection, but said G Farms on Feb. 14 informed the state agency that the farm housing was not ready for inspection and instead the workers would be housed at a hotel.
When workers arrived in April, the hotel rooms were unavailable, so the employees were housed at the farm “out of necessity,” King said.
Erik Nicholson, national vice president of United Farm Workers, welcomed greater oversight. He said H-2A visa agricultural workers are vulnerable to abuses because risking being fired 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.
Arizona farmers are increasingly relying on foreign-worker visas to harvest crops.
The Labor Department certified 5,391 H-2A workers in Arizona in fiscal 2016, compared with 2,110 in fiscal 2011, according to department data.
Republic reporters Perry Vandell and Richard Ruelas contributed to this article.
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