In a suit that was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, the men have accused Pitts Farm of firing them to replace them with visa workers from South Africa. The workers say that they have spent most of their lives working for the farm, with one plaintiff saying he has worked there for more than 25 years, as did his father and grandfather before him. He said he has started to see Mississippi Delta farms import more foreign visa workers in recent years, and most of them hail from South Africa.
The suit points out that despite being a predominantly black country, none of the foreign hires from South Africa at Pitts Farm are black. In Sunflower County, where the farm owns several thousand acres, the population is 74 percent black, and the farm’s actions give some the impression that they are hiring from abroad to avoid employing black workers.
In the suit, the men are seeking punitive damages, lost wages and injunctive relief to ensure that the farm complies with a federal law protecting American workers as a hiring priority for jobs.
Employers need to prove they tried and failed to find American workers before hiring abroad
To qualify for the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa, growers must prove that they tried and failed to find Americans who could perform the work. It also stipulates that domestic workers have to be paid at the same rate as the foreign workers. However, the black farmers claimed this is not what happened. According to the suit, the black farmers were paid $7.25 an hour during the week and $8.25 per hour on weekends, while foreign workers were being paid nearly $12.00 an hour.
One of the plaintiffs, Richard Strong, believes the black farmers were not compensated properly on account of racial discrimination.
His brother Gregory, another farmer who spent most of his life working at the farm, told The New York Times: “I never did imagine that it would come to the point where they would be hiring foreigners, instead of people like me. It’s like being robbed of your heritage.”
“I gave them half my life and ended up with nothing,” he added.
The Biden administration recently expanded the H-2A visa program, with the Department of Homeland Security announcing that farms will be permitted to start importing foreign visa workers from a list of new countries that include Cypress, Haiti, St. Lucia, Mauritius, the Dominican Republic and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The program allows U.S. farms to outsource an unlimited number of American jobs to workers from other countries, and they can extend their stay for as long as three years and bring their families to the U.S. with them.
It has been growing in popularity, with 16,000 foreign visa workers being imported for American jobs on U.S. farms in 1997; by 2020, the number had risen dramatically to 213,400 foreign visa workers in a 1200 percent increase.
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the visa program as serving as a good way for American farms to import foreign visa workers when U.S. citizens are “not available” to perform the work. However, Strong claims that American workers were fired to make way for foreign visa workers, which goes against the spirit of the program.
The lawyer representing the farmers, Ty Pinkins of the Mississippi Center for Justice and Southern Migrant Legal Services, said that the workers voiced concerns about disparities to the growers but were ignored.
“We want to shine a light on some of the disparities that’s taking place, not only in the agricultural industry with regard to the farm workers, but in other industries as well,” he told Insider.
He added that he is hoping to expose the way businesses are misusing these visa programs in a way that puts American workers at a disadvantage.
“We want people to understand that sometimes they’re not implemented fairly, and sometimes business owners find loopholes and take advantage of some of these policies,” he said.
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