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Lawsuit: Migrant workers hired to detassel in Nebraska faced substandard conditions
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Lawsuit: Migrant workers hired to detassel in Nebraska faced substandard conditions

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Thirteen migrant workers recruited in Texas to detassel in the Kearney area in 2017 have sued Monsanto and Gulf Citrus Harvesting & Hauling Inc., accusing the companies of labor violations.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Lincoln by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and Legal Aid of Nebraska, alleges the workers, several of whom were teenagers at the time, weren't paid the federal minimum wage and were subjected to substandard working conditions.

The suit alleges Monsanto hired farm labor contractor Gulf Citrus, a Florida company, to recruit, employ and house migrant workers to detassel seed corn on fields it leases in Nebraska, according to the suit.

Gulf Citrus hired the 13 — all temporary foreign agricultural workers — through what is known as the H-2A program, at the Texas Workforce Commission in Edinburg, a town at the Mexican border.

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Their contracts guaranteed them $13.79 per hour or $70 per "clean acre," whichever was higher, housing, reimbursement for travel expenses and three meals a day in exchange for $12.07 a day taken out of their paychecks.

Amanda McMahon, managing attorney of the Agricultural Worker Rights Program at Legal Aid of Nebraska, said Gulf Citrus failed to record all the hours the 13 worked or credit them with all the acres they completed and didn't give them promised bonuses. 

She said before the workers were hired, they were shown a menu of meal options, including grilled meat and chicken, burritos and tacos, but for several days in a row were served only eggs, rice and onions. 

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In the fields, the drinking water workers got was dirty, old and hot and smelled and tasted badly, McMahon said. And one day, an airplane spraying pesticides on an adjacent field led to breathing problems and an asthma attack for one worker. Despite complaints, none got medical care, she said.

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They are seeking the unpaid wages, plus an equal amount as liquidated damages, as well as statutory damages of up to $500 per person, per violation, under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.

They also are asking a judge to award the state fund for public schools one time the amount of the judgment under the Nebraska Wage Payment and Collection Act or two times the amount of judgment for willfully unpaid wages.

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In an answer filed Tuesday, Monsanto denied any working arrangement existed between the company and the 13 and denied the allegations to the extent they purport to relate to Monsanto.

Clifford Godiner, a St. Louis attorney representing the company, said the alleged injuries were "not proximately caused by any unlawful action, policy, custom, practice, and/or procedure promulgated and/or tolerated by Monsanto."

Florida-based attorney David Stefany, on behalf of Gulf Citrus, said the company fully performed its contractual obligations to each of the workers.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger

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Public safety reporter

Lori Pilger is a Norfolk native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been a public safety reporter for the Journal Star since 2005.

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