A group of six Black farm workers from Mississippi claim their former employer, Pitts Farm Partnership, brought white workers over from South Africa and paid them more to do the same work.
The suit was filed on Wednesday, Sept. 8, by the Mississippi Center for Justice and Southern Migrant Legal Services. Pitts Farm Partnership is located in the 73 percent-Black Sunflower County and grows cotton, soybeans and corn.
According to a copy of the lawsuit obtained by Atlanta Black Star, the workers were “systematically underpaid and denied job opportunities in favor of white foreign workers by their employer.”
The suit says Pitts Farm Partnership applied with the federal government to bring workers from South Africa into the U.S. under an agricultural worker visa program, claiming eligible workers couldn’t be found domestically.
After bringing over the workers, who were all white, the farm also violated federal law and a requirement of the foreign worker visa program by paying the white foreign workers more than the Black American employees for the same work, the plaintiffs claim.
The suit seeks damages for denied job opportunities at the farm and additional wages for workers Wesley Reed, Gregory Strong, Richard Strong, Andrew Johnson, Stacy
Griffin and James Simpson.
The suit also seeks punitive damages to ensure Pitts Farm Partnership complies with laws and regulations in the future.
Pitts Farm Partnership historically employed a majority-Black workforce, but that has changed as more white South Africans have been hired to do the same work.
“And since 2014, PFP has used the H-2A program to hire only white South Africans – no Black South Africans – although that country too is majority Black by a wide margin: estimates stand at around 80% Black compared to less than 8% white,” the suit says.
The suit says Johnson and Reed, who each had roughly 19 years of experience on the farm, and both Gregory and Richard Strong — with roughly 24 years apiece of Xperia century with the Pitts operation — were paid a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, with $8.25 an hour for weekend work, working seasonally from February through November.
Griffin and Simpson, who each began working for the farm around 2013, also worked seasonally from July or early August through November. and were paid $9 an hour since 2018. Most of the plaintiffs were laid off in 2020.
However, the workers from South Africa were paid $9.87 an hour in 2014, and that rate increased most years until it reached $11.83 an hour in 2020, the suit alleges, adding that between 2014 and 2020 the farm made efforts to hire white foreign workers without making efforts to recruit workers domestically.
According to the suit, the farm violated the civil rights of the workers by discriminating against them because of their race and breached their employment contracts by failing to offer them the same pay as the foreign workers. The farm violated the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act through “conscious and deliberate” actions, the suit alleges.
Amal Bouhabib, an attorney for Southern Migrant Legal Services, said the foreign agricultural workers program “does not allow farmers to pay their American workforce less than the foreign workers, or to replace willing and able U.S. workers.”
Pitts Farm supervisors, who had the power to fire workers, were always white, the Black workers say. Although the farm was informed that the supervisor used racial slurs, the farm “did nothing,” the claim states.
The suit also alleges the Pitts discrimination extended to housing conditions. One of the Black workers, Richard Strong, for a time in 2019 lived in Pitts housing in conditions that his attorneys describe as substandard:
During a portion of the time he was employed by PFP in 2019, Plaintiff Richard Strong resided in housing owned or controlled by PFP. The housing was in bad condition: infested with rats, and lacking window screens. The wood was worn and rotted, which allowed birds to enter the house through the attic. For this housing, PFP withheld $1400 from Mr. Richard Strong’s December 2019 paycheck, covering the months of December 2019 through April 2020. The rental charges exceeded the actual cost of these facilities and included a profit to PFP. As a result of these withholdings, Mr. Richard Strong was paid less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour during those 2019 workweeks in which rent charges were deducted from his earnings.
PFP also provided separate housing to its white H-2A workers free of charge that was in far better condition than the housing provided to Mr. Strong.
The legal filing also described what happened when one worker, Wesley Reed, attempted to assert his right to be paid at a rate equal to the imported white workers:
Prior to the 2020 agricultural season, Mr. Reed, who had also worked for PFP for 19 years, told PFP that he was prepared to return to his long-time job, which included all the duties listed in PFP’s H-2A application for that season.
However, Mr. Reed requested that he be paid the same wage rate as PFP’s white H-2A workers.
PFP refused Mr. Reed’s request, telling Mr. Reed that PFP could not afford to give raises as they had several South Africans who would be arriving soon who needed to be paid at a higher rate, and that Mr. Reed’s rate would remain at the federal minimum wage.
Because of PFP’s failure to pay him at the same rate as the white H- 2A workers, Mr. Reed did not work for PFP during 2020.
Ty Pinkins of the Mississippi Center for Justice said the events described in the suit are not uncommon.
“Unfortunately, this case is emblematic of a disastrous pattern in the South. Our research indicates that farm owners are increasingly abusing the H-2A program and denying opportunities to U.S. workers,” Pinkins said.
“The case also reflects our nation’s deep, ugly history of exploiting Black labor. For too long, powerful businesses have abused Black Americans for profit.”