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Abused workers turned to UFW for help: Federal lawsuit filed alleges forced labor at rural Idaho dairy

Abused workers turned to UFW for help: 
Federal lawsuit filed alleges
forced labor at rural Idaho dairy

A federal lawsuit alleges a wide-ranging “criminal conspiracy (P. 1)” under which Mexican veterinarians were “lured (P. 3)” to a dairy in rural Idaho under visas illegally obtained under NAFTA to work as animal scientists and instead were forced to toil as low-wage general laborers under “arduous (P. 1),” “grueling (P. 3)” and unsanitary conditions. Among abuses alleged in the lawsuit, several of the veterinarians “sustained serious injuries” at the dairy with one having part of her index finger, injured while milking cows, amputated because the dairy didn’t “ensure she received the best possible medical treatment (Ps. 14-15).” The plaintiffs, who the dairy threatened with deportation (P. 18), sought help from the United Farm Workers, which arranged for attorneys to represent them. (Page numbers refer to pages in the complaint, which can be accessed here:

Funk Dairy Inc. in Murtaugh, Idaho recruited the six veterinarians (P. 2) from among Mexico’s most prestigious universities with promises of high wages, bonuses, paid vacations and other benefits, free housing and transportation between Mexico and Idaho. They were hired “to develop, implement, and oversee effective animal reproduction, nutrition, animal health and related dairy industry programs [using their] the university studies,” according to the lawsuit (P. 8).  Instead, the veterinarians immediately found themselves laboring nine to 14 hour-days, six days a week as general laborers. Their duties included “milking cows…cleaning cow pens with shovels…collecting garbage manually…sweeping and cleaning veterinary areas, [and] washing company vehicles (P. 13).”

“It is appalling that an agricultural employer such as Funk Dairy engaged in what has been reported as forced labor and human trafficking by deceiving, threatening and mistreating human beings,” said UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez. “We proudly stand with these six highly-trained professional women and men, and call on the federal court to take prompt action to provide them with the only available remedy. We also call on those who sell and export Funk Dairy products to immediately assume full responsibility for the conditions farm workers endure in their supply chain to guarantee such injustices never happen again.”

Funk Dairy is part of High Desert Milk Cooperative, which exports its products globally. In the United States, High Desert has sold its products at Walmart stores.

Scope of the problem: A 2014 study by the Urban Institute documented 122 closed cases of labor trafficking in the United States, with 71 percent of victims entering this country on lawful visas such as the NAFTA Professional (TN) Visas issued to the Mexican veterinarians (Ps. 1-2). “More than a decade after passage of the United States’ federal law against human trafficking, we continue to lack systematic information about the characteristics of labor trafficking victimization and how labor trafficking cases are investigated by law enforcement,” according to the abstract from the Urban Institute study.

Globally, 14.2 million people were “trapped into forced labor in industries including agriculture,” according to data from the International Labor Organization (Ps. 1-2).—ed_norm/—declaration/documents/publication/wcms_182004.pdf

The remedy: After President George W. Bush declared human trafficking is “a special kind of evil,” abusing and exploiting the most innocent and vulnerable, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003. Citing the law’s “private cause of action for victims of human trafficking, [the Idaho lawsuit aims] to ensure both the victims can be made whole and the perpetrators of this inhuman practice are fully deterred from committing such acts in the future (P. 3).”

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from the dairy and other defendants for obtaining the veterinarians’ services through fraud and abuse (P. 20).

Conditions at Funk Dairy were “highly unhygienic,” even for an animal facility, the suit alleges (P. 14). The lawsuit claims the workers were not allowed a meal period, and instead ate in the milking area where they worked atop boxes or other materials amid flies and mice (P. 14).

The lawsuit details several of the veterinarians “sustained serious injuries” at the dairy. One had part of her index finger, injured while milking cows, amputated because the dairy didn’t “ensure she received the best possible medical treatment (e.g. reconstructive surgery) (Ps. 14-15).” The dairy refused another veterinarian who injured a finger more than 48 hours off, “claim[ing] that her other four fingers were enough for her to work. (P. 15).”

According to the complaint, one veterinarian was made to live in the basement of a home with “rats, spiders and insects, with no lighting or heating, and without furniture.” It was “uninhabitable” without heating during Idaho’s freezing winter (P. 15).  Other veterinarians lived in poor housing for which they were charged rents as high as $400 per month deducted from their pay despite assurances of free accommodations. The dairy conducted home surveillance and used keys to “perform unannounced inspections without plaintiffs’ consent or permission (P. 16).” The dairy failed to provide promised travel costs to and from Idaho; one veterinarian had the roughly $600 in travel expenses from Mexico deducted from his pay (P. 17).

Rather than resolve the veterinarians’ “complaints about repeated violations of the work agreement,” the workers allege the dairy threatened “to have them deported to Mexico if they displeased” management (P. 18). About one year into the veterinarians’ three-year NAFTA visas, the dairy terminated their labor contract and refused to pay for them to return to Mexico (P. 19).

NAFTA visa violation: In their suit, the veterinarians, all Mexican citizens, claim they “were admitted to the United States on a temporary basis by means of NAFTA Professional (TN) Visas to work” at Funk Dairy from about November 2014 to November 2015 (Ps. 4-5). “A TN Visa is a visa category within the North American Free Trade Agreement {NAFTA), and enables Canadian and Mexican citizens to enter the United States to engage in professional business activities on a temporary basis (Ps. 4-5).”

The suit alleges the dairy and its recruiters helped the veterinarians qualify for the NAFTA TN visas through the U.S. Embassy, coaching them “to specifically state that they were going to work at Funk Dairy as an ‘animal scientist.’” The dairy manager told the veterinarians “that if U.S. Department of State officials asked whether they would be performing general labor, such as milking cows or cleaning cow pens, that they should say no (P. 12).”

Violations of U.S. Victims of Trafficking Protection Act: The law’s forced labor provision states that “Whoever knowingly provides or obtains the labor or services of a person…by means of the abuse of law or the legal process, shall be fined or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both (Ps. 19-20).” The lawsuit alleges that the dairy “knowingly obtained [the veterinarians’] services by (a) abusing the legal process through obtaining fraudulent NAFTA professional visas with no intention of providing professional work to plaintiffs, and by (b) causing plaintiffs to fear that they would be deported to Mexico for complaining about illegal working conditions (Ps. 19-20).”

The suit also alleges that the dairy broke the “trafficking into servitude provision” of this law that bans “recruiting, transporting, providing, or obtaining by any means any person for labor or services in violation of laws prohibiting peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude, or forced labor (P. 20).” The dairy and its representatives engaged in those illegal activities by obtaining the veterinarians “through fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation, knowing that plaintiffs, who are professionals, would not knowingly agree to work as general laborers for a dairy (P. 21).”

RICO violations: Finally, the lawsuit alleges the dairy and its representatives committed civil violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and that they constitute an illegal “RICO Enterprise” under federal law for engaging in interstate commerce with “activities and transactions relating to the international and interstate movement of workers through the procuring of NAFTA TN visas [that] affect interstate commerce, and require travel and communications across state and international lines (P. 21).” The RICO statute provides for extended criminal penalties and a civil cause of action.