A new lawsuit alleges workers were forced to work for months without pay at a green house in Monroe County.
They were temporary agriculture workers from Mexico, recruited under the H-2A visa program. They arrived in Michigan in early 2018 to work at Four Star Greenhouse, a company that sells potted plants under the Proven Winners brand. The lawsuit says when the workers complained about not receiving pay, they were set up in sting operation and deported back to Mexico.
“The truth is that we left our small towns to make something better,” said Eduardo Reyes-Trujillo, a worker who spoke to Michigan Radio through an interpreter. “And for them to take advantage of us is not right.
Interpretation for Reyes-Trujillo was provided by Mari Perales-Sanchez of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, one of the organizations involved in filing the lawsuit.
Farmworker Legal Services and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center also signed on to the complaint, which was filed in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
Anna Hill, staff attorney for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, says, at a minimum, the workers should receive the pay they were denied in 2018.
“Over two years later, these workers have still not received their wages for weeks and hundreds of hours of work,” Hill says.
Reyes-Trujillo says for him, pay is only part of the reason for the lawsuit.
“From now on, I would like for workers not to have fear to speak out, and share what they experience,” he says. “I would like things to be better for the worker, first and foremost.”
Reyes-Trujillo originally arrived in Michigan after being recruited by a contracting company, Vasquez Citrus & Hauling. Reyes-Trujillo says he first arrived in the U.S. in North Carolina, and his H-2A visa was set to expire at the end of 2017.
But he says his supervisor, Francisco Vasquez, told him the visa had been extended, and the workers could go to Michigan in early 2018.
The lawsuit alleges Vasquez’s company had a history of violations, including being involved in a crash in 2015 in which six workers died while being transported from Michigan to Texas. An investigation by the Associated Press published in 2016 said Vasquez Citrus had been cited 22 times in the 2 years prior to the crash.
The lawsuit also alleges Vasquez Citrus was not properly registered to do business in Michigan at the time it contracted with Four Star Greenhouse. Later that year, the U.S. Department of Labor debarred Vasquez Citrus from the H-2A program, and imposed a $15,153 fine for failing to reimburse its workers for travel costs, as required by law.
Anna Hill says Four Star Greenhouse should have been aware of the problems with the company when it contracted with them to bring workers from Mexico.
“And Four Star was the one benefitting from this labor and overseeing this labor,” Hill says. “And so that, in and of itself, gives them a responsibility as an employer to make sure that their workforce is being compensated for their time.”
Reyes-Trujillo says when workers tried to tell the staff at Four Star that Vasquez Citrus wasn’t paying them, Francisco Vasquez told them to stay quiet, and threatened them.
The workers were at the greenhouse six days a week, sometimes working up to 70 hours, the lawsuit alleges.
Reyes-Trujillo says they didn’t know where to go for help, and he felt he had to keep showing up for work, even though he wasn’t being paid. He didn’t have the money to return to Mexico on his own, and he feared if he didn’t show up for work, he wouldn’t be able to work in the U.S. again.
“Actually, in the contract, it said that we couldn’t have three absences or bad marks from work, because they would return us to Mexico,” he said through the interpreter. “And the company would no longer recruit us for the following season.”
The lawsuit alleges that after workers continued to complain about not being paid, Francisco Vasquez “lured” them away from their apartment, and took them to Walmart where they were told they’d go on a shopping trip. Instead, immigration officers were waiting to arrest them.
The lawsuit says they spent more than a month in detention in the Calhoun County Jail before they were deported.
That’s where attorneys at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center first learned of the case. Attorneys have also asked for class action status for the case, so that any other workers who were denied pay could be compensated as well.
The lawsuit asks for a judge to force Four Star Greenhouse to pay the workers for their time, and for the damage caused by their ordeal. The company has not yet returned a phone call seeking comment.
“I want there to be justice,” Reyes-Trujillo says.
A spokesperson for the Michigan Attorney General’s office said he was not aware of any criminal investigation into the allegations made by the workers.
Correction: This story was changed to reflect that the workers allege immigration officers arrested them. The workers did not say for certain that the officers were from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as the story previously said.