By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS, Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Two agriculture businesses in the Mississippi Delta and some Black farm workers have settled the workers’ lawsuits over claims the farms hired white laborers from South Africa and paid them more than the local Black employees for the same type of work.
Federal court records show the two lawsuits were settled in December, with terms of the settlements remaining private.
“This particular form of discrimination is a recent manifestation of the age-old problem of exploitation of Black labor in America and particularly in the Delta,” Rob McDuff of the Mississippi Center for Justice, one of the workers’ attorneys, said in a news release Thursday. “These settlements are an important step and we are going to keep moving forward in an effort to eradicate these abuses throughout the Delta.”
Southern Migrant Legal Services and the Mississippi Center for Justice filed one of the lawsuits in September 2021 on behalf of six workers against Pitts Farms Partnership, which grows cotton, soybean and corn. Two more plaintiffs joined the suit in November 2021.
The groups filed the other lawsuit in April on behalf of five workers against a catfish grower, Harris Russell Farms.
Both farms are in Sunflower County, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Jackson.
Court records show U.S. District Judge Debra M. Brown filed the settlement order in the Harris Russell Farms case on Dec. 6, and U.S. Magistrate Judge David A. Sanders signed the settlement order in the Pitts Farms case on Dec. 22.
Amal Bouhabib, a Southern Migrant Legal Services attorney who also represented the workers, said the plaintiffs will be compensated “for the discrimination they suffered at these two farms.”
“But many other Delta farms are engaging in these unlawful practices and more suits will be coming against those who do not pay fair wages to the local workers,” Bouhabib said.
Tim Threadgill, an attorney for Pitts Farms, said Friday that the business “is glad to have reached a mutual settlement with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the farm.
“Pitts Farms denied liability, but litigation is expensive and the farm believed it was in everyone’s best interest to settle if the parties could reach mutually agreeable terms, which they did,” Threadgill said.
Robert Warrington, an attorney representing Harris Russell Farms, said Friday that he could not comment on the settlement.
The lawsuit against Pitts Farms said the business started bringing in white workers from South Africa in 2014, using a placement firm to hire seasonal labor, and that from 2014 to 2020, the farm did not make the same effort to recruit U.S. workers as it did for immigrant workers.
The H-2A program allows U.S. farmers to hire foreign workers when no U.S. workers are available, but it does not allow farmers to pay American workers less than the foreign workers, Bouhabib said.
Southern Migrant Legal Services and the Mississippi Center for Justice also contacted the U.S. Labor Department, which investigated allegations of wage theft and displacement of U.S. workers. In November, the department announced it had recovered $134,532 in unpaid wages for 54 workers at 11 farms in the Mississippi Delta and set fines of $122,610 against those farms.
Mississippi Center for Justice president and CEO Vangela Wade said the lawsuits and the Labor Department’s enforcement “worked in tandem to improve the lives of many of these local farm workers.”
“We look forward to continuing this campaign in the Delta and bringing some measure of justice to the workers who have been underpaid and mistreated for many years,” Wade said.
Mississippi is a largely rural state with poultry, soybeans, timber, cotton and corn as its top agricultural products.
In August 2019, U.S. immigration agents raided seven chicken processing plants in Mississippi and arrested 680 mostly Latino workers in the largest such operation in at least a decade. Two years after the raid, Mississippi Center for Justice said about 230 people had been deported because of previous immigration orders or other causes, and about 400 were awaiting hearings.