Escaped Farmworkers Find Justice in Recent Conviction

Farmworkers forced to escape a Florida farm labor camp in 2017 have finally received some vindication.  The owner of Los Villatoros Harvesting (LVH), LLC, a farm labor contractor, was recently sentenced to almost a decade in prison for abuse of H-2A workers between 2015-2017.

The H-2A program is simply a visa program. If farm owners meet all the requirements and formalities of the H-2A program, they can secure visas for workers, but the important step of finding and recruiting those workers is another story. As most farmers don’t have networks with farmworkers in other countries, they are often dependent on third parties—specifically, farm labor contractors (FLCs)—to recruit and manage the workers.

The now disgraced LVH was one such entity. This most recent prosecution for egregious abuse of the H-2A system can serve as a cautionary tale: farms that use the workers and suppliers that buy the product harvested by H-2A workers could be unaware abuse is occurring.

Bladimir Moreno, LVH’s owner, pleaded guilty to criminal charges including conspiracy to commit forced labor. Prior to that adjudication, the US Department of Labor concluded its investigation and found that Los Villatoros violated federal law by (among other things):

  • Moving the farmworkers from assigned worksites to unapproved locations in Florida and in other states,
  • Failing to pay for the workers’ visa and application fees and transportation to the US (and in fact impermissibly charging them fees for these things), and
  • Providing crowded and unsanitary housing, in some cases failing to provide beds.

It is unclear whether the farms that used LVH’s workers knew of their living conditions or the more serious abuse the criminal investigation brought to light.  LVH also confiscated passports, threatened the workers and their families, and imposed large debts on workers for costs LVH was supposed to cover.

Some advocacy groups, like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which was the group that first alerted the authorities to LVH’s abuses, suggest that only a third-party labor practices audit program, like their Fair Farm Program can adequately ensure that farmworkers are safe and treated well.

At the very least, farmers hiring H-2A workers should develop strong relationships with their farm labor contractors so that they can be confident that the contractors are responsible and ethical. Farmers who aren’t yet using the H-2A program should also note that one of the LVH’s violations was inadequate farm worker housing. OHSA rules around farmworker housing apply to any operation providing housing to their workers.

For more information on H-2A programs and how to apply for H-2A workers, see our webinar here, or check out Podcast Episode # 48.  If you are interested in the regulations that apply to farmworker housing specifically, see our Farmers’ Guide to In-Kind Wages.