March 23, 2019

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Farm Laborers File Class-Action Suit Against Monsanto

ractor spray fertilize field with insecticide herbicide

On June 29th, a group of Monsanto corn-field workers filed a class-action lawsuit against their employer, alleging that, among other things, the major agricultural corporation had been paying its workers below minimum wage. Roberto Perez-Perez and Armando Nieves filed the claims on behalf of other workers suffering under similar conditions in three Midwestern states. In the suit, they alleged that Monsanto failed to adhere to the wage-pay and record-keeping requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA, or 29 U.S.C. §§ 201) and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (AWPA, or 29 U.S.C. §§ 1801). Additionally, the plaintiffs suggested that Monsanto undermined workplace protections imposed by labor laws in Michigan, Missouri and Illinois.

Detasseling and Roguing

The workers involved in the case performed the grueling work of detasseling and roguing. Though most corn is detasseled mechanically, workers are still required to fill in the gaps, removing tassels missed by the machines. Detasseling refers to the removal of strands that sprout from the tops of stalks. This is essential, as tassels are the mechanism of self-pollination, meaning they drop pollen onto the female flowers below. This must be avoided so the farmer can superficially cross-pollinate different strains of corn and thus create more robust crops.

Roguing is simply the clearing of diseased or insufficiently grown stalks. Similarly, this process helps ensure the strength of the crop and is equally important.

Allegations

In performing these tasks, the workers found themselves being taken advantage of. Specifically, Perez-Perez and Nieves claimed that Monsanto broke its promise (communicated via federally mandated disclosure forms) to pay a flat-rate ($70-$90) per acre. In fact, the laborers were often told to go over the same acreage multiple times, a task not given in the initial disclosure forms and not recorded on paystubs. Supervisors often recorded the completed labor in terms of rows and not acres, which resulted in lower pay.  

Additionally, the employer failed to provide adequate notice for the terms of employment, did not pay the workers on time and did not offer satisfactory explanations for paid wages. In most (if not all) cases, Monsanto had to confirm that the detasseling and roguing were sufficiently completed by the workers. This process could take up to several weeks, effectively delaying the delivery of wages to the laborers. In the end, workers were not even paid (federal or state) minimum wage.

No Ordinary Class-Action Suit

This isn’t any ordinary lawsuit. Or at least that’s what Teresa Hendricks, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told InvestigateMidwest.org. “I’m not aware of any other multi-state class action against Monsanto over its labor practices in production of seed corn,” she said. “Potentially, it could be the highest amount of damages of this type of suit.” According to Hendriks, the award could exceed $2 million and affect the lives of hundreds of farm-laborers in the Midwest.

Middle-Men

It’s worth noting the conspicuous absence of Farm Laborer Contractors (FLCs) from the list of defendants. These were the on-the-ground supervisors, in charge of carrying out Monsanto’s policies. According to Hendricks, “The company builds in crew leaders in between Monsanto and the workers, in my opinion to hide behind contractors to absolve themselves of responsibility for the wage theft.”

She added that the contractors were not listed in the suit because they have also been subject to exploitation by Monsanto executives. In fact, according to the allegations, FLCs were not given adequate funding to pay their workers until it could be shown the work was satisfactorily completed. “[FLCs] have sued Monsanto even for pay. They will be deposed as witnesses in our case,” said Hendricks.

Looking forward, the plaintiffs will have to be certified as a class in order to continue pursuing their claims as a class-action lawsuit. According to Hendricks, chances are good they’ll get the certification.

About Sean Lally

Sean Lally holds a BA in Philosophy from Temple University where he also studied theatre for several years. Between 2007 and 2017, he worked as a professional actor for several regional theater companies in Philadelphia, including the Arden Theatre Co., EgoPo Productions, Lantern Theater and the Bearded Ladies. In 2010, Sean co-founded Found Theater Company, an avant-garde artist collective with whom he first started to cultivate an identity as a writer.

Over the past few years, Sean has been working as a content writer, focusing primarily on the ways in which unequal power distribution can negatively affect consumers, workers and “everyday people,” more broadly. He writes for a number of websites including AccidentAttorneys.org, PersonalInjury.com, AmericanLegalNews.com and others.