Migrant workers sue agriculture giant over pay

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A federal class-action lawsuit filed in Illinois has ties to West Michigan.

The suit alleges that global agriculture company Monsanto has cheated its migrant workers out of thousands of dollars.

Grand Rapids nonprofit Migrant Legal Aid is taking on the international corporation alongside legal counsel in Illinois and New York. Two plaintiffs have been named so far, but if a judge certifies the class, the lawsuit will grow.

“Each one of the plaintiffs could claim as much as $2,000 or more and with the potential class of a thousand workers, the damages in this case could really climb up there,” Migrant Legal Aid Executive Director Teresa Hendricks-Pitsch explained to 24 Hour News 8.

Hendricks-Pitsch said the two workers approached the nonprofit wanting to know if they were treated fairly for detasseling corn in Michigan, Missouri and Illinois. To complete that task, migrant workers walk the fields and remove the tassel, which is a pollen-producing flower, from the top of corn plants.

The 21-page lawsuit alleges they weren’t paid minimum wage nor compensated on time for their work in the fields.

The suit notes a pay rate between $70 and $90 per acre detasseled, but says the workers often had to pass over the same acre several times without additional pay.

Federal court documents also allege Monsanto didn’t keep proper records of what was owed to each worker, nor what was expected for the acres of corn to be up to their standards.

>>Online: Migrant workers’ lawsuit

Hendricks-Pitsch added the company uses farm labor contractors to pay the workers as a way to distance itself from any wrongdoing, but says Monsanto is behind the wage theft.

“What I see as very unfortunate is that Monsanto is a very profitable company and yet the way the business model is set up, it works to the disadvantage of the end worker who’s actually doing the detasseling, which results in all of their corn production, which makes them all of their money,” Hendricks-Pitsch said. “We think it’s a systemic problem and that we want to change the business practice of Monsanto towards their workers so workers are treated more fairly.”

Monsanto provided this statement to 24 Hour News 8 on Thursday:

“We are aware of the recent filing. While we are still reviewing the claims and are unable to offer details on this pending case, I can tell you that Monsanto’s Global Human Rights Program is designed to ensure our employees and the employees of our business partners who are working to develop new tools to help the world’s farmers grow food using less of the earth’s natural resources, have a safe and respectful working experience and are compensated in accordance with all local, state and federal laws.

“Our Global Human Rights Policy articulates our intent to only do business with partners who aspire, in the conduct of their business, to ethical standards that are consistent with our policy. As is common in the agricultural industry, we partner with Farm Labor Contractors (FLCs) who recruit and employ seasonal agricultural workers for seed production activities.

“We provide workers with an Expectations of Farm Labor Contractors document in a couple of languages outlining our expectations that FLCs provide safe working conditions; track and pay for all working hours; provide housing that meets Federal, State and Local Safety and Health Standards; and that we have zero tolerance for threats, violence, and harassment.

“In case of any concerns on the part of the workers, we also provide information on how to confidentially contact Monsanto’s Business Conduct Hotline – a third-party managed telephone line and email address. They can use this hotline without fear of retaliation, and be assured that Monsanto will thoroughly investigate their allegations.”