Environment & Health

A Bushel of Labor Complaints

Lawsuits against seed-corn companies shed light on rising use of labor contractors.
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DARRELL HOEMANN/MIDWEST CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING

Each year, seed-corn companies like Monsanto bring in thousands of laborers to produce hybrid seeds, according to a two-year investigation by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

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Most of the seeds are genetically modified. The companies sell the seeds to farmers worldwide, in what has become an $11 billion GMO corn industry.

The farmers grow it into corn for sale as food, ethanol, livestock feed and components of a range of industrial products, from fireworks to ceiling tiles.

In the process, the Midwest Center investigation found, Monsanto and its counterpart in GMO corn production, DuPont Pioneer, have faced repeated allegations of labor violations over the past decade related to a growing use of farm labor contractors.

Key Findings

  • Allegations include broken recruiting promises, improperly withheld pay and substandard living conditions.

  • Like its counterpart, Monsanto Co., DuPont controls slightly more than a third of the U.S. GMO hybrid corn market.

  • Undocumented workers now represent more than half of farmworkers nationwide.

Below are summaries from some of those cases.

DuPont Pioneer: wrongful death suit in Illinois

Like its counterpart, Monsanto Co., DuPont Pioneer controls slightly more than a third of the U.S. GMO hybrid corn market. And like Monsanto, Pioneer has in recent years faced repeated complaints, including litigation, about its detasseling-related labor practices. Detasseling is the task of lopping off corn tassels, which enables growers to produce lucrative high-yield hybrid corn seed. The work is largely done by migrant farmworkers.

One complaint, a wrongful death lawsuit filed in 2013, alleged that Humberto Casarrubia Sanchez, a 36-year-old Mexican national hired through the H-2A temporary guest worker visa program, suffered heatstroke while detasseling in Illinois in 2011.

According to the initial complaint, Pioneer's labor contractor, McNeill Management, failed to provide enough water and shade for workers toiling in 100-degree weather.

Sanchez went unaccounted for when the job ended. More than a month later, his body was found near the rows of corn where he worked.

A private law firm filed the suit on behalf of the worker's family. The case is currently working its way through the courts.

Then-Pioneer spokeswoman Jane Slusark wrote in a 2015 email: “We do not comment on active litigation.”

In a June 2014 court filing, Pioneer admitted that it hired McNeill, and that McNeill hired Sanchez, but otherwise the company denied or pleaded ignorance about the allegations.

Pioneer spokeswoman Susan Mantey stated in a 2016 email: “DuPont Pioneer follows all state and federal laws regarding migrant worker housing, and we take the living conditions of our workers seriously.”

Mantey wrote that the company “works to ensure that workers are provided with a safe environment for their work” and offers “a comprehensive safety training program for all workers, which includes a safety presentation, handbook, safety toolbox talks, safety rules, and Worker Protection Standard training, among other items.”

In a June 2017 email, Mantey added: “DuPont Pioneer is committed to the core values of respect for people, safety, environmental stewardship, and commitment to the highest ethical standards.”

She would not share copies of the “proprietary” safety and training materials, but wrote that they covered a range of topics, from “what to expect during detasseling” to “emergency medical procedures.”

'False and misleading'

In another lawsuit against Pioneer, 31 migrant farmworkers and their seven family members from south Texas won a 2015 settlement of $190,000.

According to the lawsuit, originally filed in Michigan in 2014, Pioneer's contractors recruited workers to the cornfields around Niles, Michigan, with “false and misleading information,” then failed to:

  • pay migrant workers the promised wage for all hours worked
  • employ the workers on the promised start dates
  • maintain a reasonable supply of water or toilet or hand-washing facilities
  • provide housing that met minimum health and safety standards

In a July 2014 court filing, Pioneer denied or pleaded ignorance about the substance of the allegations. Its June 2015 settlement stipulated that the agreement did “not constitute an admission of wrongdoing or liability” by Pioneer.

Chris Varner, one of two contractors named in the lawsuit against Pioneer, declined to comment on any specifics related to the case.

“It took years to put that whole thing behind me,” he wrote by email, about the lawsuit. “And I'd rather keep it that way.”

Reyes vs. Remington Hybrid Seed Co.: Who's responsible?

In 2002, a group of migrant farmworkers sued seed company Remington Hybrid Seed Co. and its contractor, Braulio Zarate, Jr.

The allegations themselves were common — non-disclosure, payment and housing allegations typical of those often fielded by legal aid offices.

But unlike most detasseling cases, which normally settle without generating court rulings, legal aid lawyers said this case ultimately set a key precedent: It established a seed-corn company's liability for the action of its contractors as well as the company's responsibilities to recruited workers.

In July 2007, the federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled against the company in Reyes v. Remington Hybrid Seed Company.

In its ruling, the court found: “Remington must be deemed the workers' employer for events that occurred in the fields under its management or in its offices.”

Remington did not reply to multiple phone calls, a website submission of extensive questions or a letter stating the questions.

But Tom Thornburg, a former attorney with the Michigan-based legal aid clinic Farmworker Legal Services, said the Reyes ruling means that seed-corn companies are liable for a contractor's violations, including broken promises at recruitment.

“It's their responsibility to give accurate disclosure. It's their requirement,” he said. “Their crew leader is just their agent. It's their responsibility to monitor and police them.”

In practice, he said, it doesn't always work out that way.

“You show Monsanto on paper that they have an obligation [under Reyes]—that they need to know what their contractors do and police them, that they're liable, and they will simply settle,” Thornburg said.

Suit claims Monsanto contractor made

Many legal aid settlements with seed-corn companies involve non-disclosure agreements.

But over the past several years, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid has handled four lawsuits and a pre-court settlement on corn production, all against Monsanto, in which plaintiffs could talk publicly. Workers in some of the cases agreed to be interviewed.

They included three of the 22 farmworkers who sued after a Monsanto contractor recruited them from the Rio Grande Valley in 2010 with attractive employment terms: six weeks of work at 10 to 12 hours per day, $8 per hour, $12 for overtime and decent housing provided in Boone, Iowa.

The terms turned out to be false and were the products of a “malicious design,” according to a 2013 lawsuit filed in federal court in the southern district of Texas against Monsanto and its contractor on the job, Eleuterio Cortes.

“Defendants knowingly made the false and misleading promises [of] six weeks of employment” but offered work for “only four weeks,” the lawsuit stated. “[They] failed to offer work for 10 to 12 hours per day … and failed to disclose housing arrangements.”

Agustín Garcia, a Brownsville, Texas, resident, was among the crew members.

“They told the time and the work we were going to do,” he said. “It wasn't so. They didn't keep their word. I've worked for other companies directly – work is work, what's most important is that the company lives up to its side of the bargain.”

Worker on Monsanto job: 'This is not what we came for'

According to most measurements, Josefa Perez was not a typical farmworker on a Monsanto job.

As a retired teacher from Weslaco, TX, she spoke good English, she was educated and she was not desperate for money.

Instead, Perez said she took the 2012 job, in Oelwein, Iowa, to raise revenue for her daughter's college expenses and better understand her ex-students' families — “what some of my migrant parents go through [and] where they're coming from.”

She said what she learned led her to a legal aid office, where she complained about her experience with Monsanto and its contractor, Leonel Rodriguez.

In the summer of 2012, Perez said she accompanied her then-17-year-old daughter and then-25-year-old son to the job in Oelwein, Iowa.

Perez' recruiter, Rodriguez, had been hired by Monsanto to find migrant farmworkers to detassel hybrid corn. Perez said Rodriguez promised good wages and housing.

But there were not enough beds or work, she said.

Perez found herself and her daughter crammed into a room with a stranger, with her son having to sleep on the floor. The roommate, Nila Cantu, echoed Perez's story in an interview, adding that the room lacked a cooking stove. Perez said that she and Cantu ultimately received less than half the pay they were promised.

'Not what we were told'

“This is not what we came for, this is not what we were told,” Perez said. “They said that easily in the first week we would be getting anywhere from $800 to $900 or more depending on how fast we worked. And then to get $300? That was not fair.”

Perez said housing and wages were the biggest problem.

But she said her crew of about 45 workers also experienced at least one problem in the field itself: a long distance from the rows where they were toiling to the sole Porta-potty.

As a result, she said, one worker had to defecate in the field.

“We were like way out there,” Perez said. “It had to be over a mile for him to get back to the front where there would have been a bathroom. The contractor … told us that Monsanto was very upset [after the alleged defecation]. But there was no, 'I'm sorry, we dropped the ball, we should have had one back there for you.' Nothing.”

Within days of arriving home, Perez sought out Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which sent a demand letter to Monsanto.

TRLA lawyer Daniela Dwyer said the demand letter, addressing only housing and pay for the crew and not the allegation about restroom facilities, resulted in a 2014 settlement with Monsanto. The settlement itself and the demand letter outlining the problem to Monsanto remained private. But Perez and her fellow workers were not prevented from discussing the experience.

  • “They told the time and the work we were going to do. It wasn't so. They didn't keep their word.”

In an unusual development, Rodriguez, the contractor, himself sued Monsanto over the same job, claiming breach of contract.

Monsanto counter-sued, claiming extortion. In the end, Rodriguez and Monsanto jointly moved to end their cases. Rodriguez could not be reached for comment, despite repeated attempts by letter and phone, to the only known address and three known phone numbers.

Charla Lord, a Monsanto spokeswoman, declined to comment on the Rodriguez job, but stated in an e-mail that “the most recent U.S. Department of Labor audit of sanitation at one of our sites found we were in compliance with all federal laws and regulations.”

Monsanto hired three labor contractors who had prompted complaints, records show

A review of U.S. Department of Labor records and grievances submitted to legal aid offices has found that the St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. approved the hiring of three farm contractors — Eleuterio Cortes, Hermilo Cantu, Jr., and Abel Cuello, Jr. — who at the time of hiring had already been named in labor-related complaints, including litigation, about their work in seed-corn production.

In a 2013, a group of 22 migrant farmworkers filed a lawsuit in Texas against Monsanto and the first contractor, Cortes, over a seed-corn job in Iowa in 2010.

The lawsuit alleged that Cortes was not federally authorized to work as a contractor, did not pay workers their due and housed workers in substandard hotel rooms, some of which had plumbing leaks, backed-up showers, no way to store or prepare food, and “were infested with fleas.”

Two years later, in 2015, Monsanto offered Cortes work at the same site, where he was again the subject of a complaint, again involving lack of federal authorization. Monsanto settled both cases.

The company's contractor registry shows that it approved the hiring of Cortes again in 2016, the next year.

The second contractor, Cantu, was sued at least twice for his work with Monsanto, records show.

One case — filed in Texas in 2012 for events in Indiana in 2010 — included complaints that workers were not paid promised wages and did not have access to adequate sanitation facilities. Cantu also allegedly violated the “rights of the non-working children to housing that meets applicable health and safety standard.”

In the second case, filed before the 2015 detasseling season for events in Indiana 2011 and 2012, workers alleged that Cantu committed a number of similar violations, from paying “far fewer hours than they worked” to “failing to provide [required] toilet facilities, hand washing facilities with potable water, and cool potable drinking water.” The outcome of the case is still pending.

Lord would not comment on whether Cantu was subsequently hired by the company. But an internal Monsanto document, “Monsanto Farm Labor Contractor housing List” – which the company gives Legal Aid lawyers to reveal the company's contractors in various locations – lists Cantu for the 2015 season, though not for 2016.

Cantu did not respond to letters requesting comment.

Served prison time

Perhaps the most publicly known detasseling recruiter hired by Monsanto was Abel Cuello, Jr., a Florida-based contractor who had a history of legal complaints against him at the time Monsanto hired him.

In 1999, Cuello pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit involuntary servitude, a felony, for his role in a series of violations that included smuggling, trafficking and failing to ensure the safety of Mexican tomato workers in Florida.

Media reports added that Cuello locked workers in a roach-infested trailer each night.

According to court records, Cuello was ordered to pay a fine just under $21,000. Sentenced to a maximum of five years of prison time, Cuello ultimately served less than three years in federal prison.

As long as a felony conviction doesn't happen within the preceding five years, the labor department can certify labor contractors convicted of felonies — from smuggling illegal immigrants to extortion, embezzlement, robbery and “murder, rape, assault with intent to kill,” according to the federal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.

In late 2004, according to Department of Labor spokesman Edwin Nieves, Jr., the agency granted Cuello his certification, enabling him to return to work in the tomato industry.

By 2009, Cuello was recruiting and supervising workers from South Texas for Pioneer's detasseling operations in Indiana.

Pioneer would not comment on the hiring of Cuello. But by 2013 he was the subject of a Texas RioGrande Legal Aid lawsuit alleging violations from the 2009-2010 seasons at Pioneer, including failure to provide adequate access to bathroom facilities and threats to dock pay of workers who took breaks.

By April 2014, the suit added similar allegations for the 2011-2012 seasons with Pioneer and was settled in 2015, records show.

Monsanto's Lord would not comment on whether the company knew about the Pioneer-related complaints — or whether it subsequently hired Cuello in 2013.

But Department of Labor documents show that the company did hire Cuello in 2013.

The Department investigated complaints that workers under Monsanto and Cuello in 2013 “did not have cold water and were not given proper breaks to drink water and washing stations were not sanitary.”

The Department of Labor found no violations and did not fine the company or Cuello.

Cuello could not be reached for comment despite attempts by letter and by phone. Lord did not respond to questions asking whether the company would have considered Cuello's record before offering him work, or whether it generally subjects contractors to background checks.

But she cited a one-page set of guidelines from 2015, which the company issued to contractors to clarify “expectations Monsanto holds for all Farm Labor Contractors” on issues ranging from pay to violent threats.

The document stated that Monsanto “works hard to select Farm Labor Contractors (FLC's) who share our commitment to worker safety, respect and creating a great place to work.”

This article was reported with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with support from the H.D. Lloyd Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Research assistance provided by Lauren Grandestaff, Ginger Hervey, Renee Hickman, Samantha Sunne, and Francisco Vara-Orta.

About the reporter

Laird Townsend

Laird Townsend

Laird Townsend is an award-winning editor and freelance reporter whose work has appeared in national newspapers and magazines.