Monsanto Sued By Migrant Workers Over Labor, Housing Conditions

A group of migrant farm workers from Texas is suing Monsanto, accusing the agriculture giant of paying them less than the minimum wage, putting them in substandard housing and charging them for rent they were told would be free.

The eight workers traveled from Hidalgo County, Texas, to Indiana in the summer of 2010, to spend a few months detasseling, sorting and husking corn, according to the complaint filed by lead plaintiff Jose Cardenas in federal court last week. The workers say that a Texas-based recruiter named Hermilo Cantu, Jr., serving as an intermediary to Monsanto, told the workers that they would have plenty of work at an agreed-upon wage, free housing for their families and kitchen facilities to prepare their own meals.

But the workers claim those promises went unfulfilled. They say the recruiter had told them they would earn a piece-rate wage of $80 per acre, but the actual pay turned out to be less than that and below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Although they did have free motel housing when they arrived, the workers claim they eventually ended up in a former nursing home having to pay $300 per month in rent.

As for the kitchen facilities, workers say the employer brought in a school bus that had been outfitted with three or four stoves and a pair of refrigerators, a cramped and "substandard" setup that couldn't accomodate the workforce. "Plaintiffs found the 'kitchen bus' to be seldom usable because it was so overcrowded and inadequate for the number of workers," the complaint reads. Two workers, Antonio and Irma Mena, say they were put in a room that didn't have enough beds for them and their three children.

According to the complaint, "two or more" of the workers "suffered illness or injuries from suspected pesticide exposure" during the course of the work.

Tom Helscher, a spokesman for Monsanto, told HuffPost that the company has not yet received the complaint but is aware of it. "Monsanto is committed to insuring that all seasonal laborers supporting our business receive the pay and benefits they are promised," Helscher wrote in an email, "and the pay and benefits provided exceed what is required by law."

Cantu could not be reached, and a lawyer for the workers declined to comment on the lawsuit, which was filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. The lawsuit was first reported by Courthouse News Service.

Many agricultural companies like Monsanto rely partly on migrant labor for duties such as detasseling, a process by which workers remove the pollen-producing flowers in one variety of corn so that a hybrid seed can be produced. The workers are often Latinos hailing from the Southwest U.S. and Mexico, traveling the Midwest in search of work.

Missouri-based Monsanto is the largest producer of genetically modified seed in the world. The company had sales of $4.2 billion and net income of $937 million in the most recent quarter.

A group of migrant workers from Arizona settled a similar lawsuit against Monsanto last year. In that case, 16 workers said they, too, had been promised free housing and designated wages detasseling corn in Indiana during the summer of 2010. The workers claimed that they ended up in a substandard hotel and didn't get paid all the wages they said they were owed.

The settlement for that case was confidential.

HuffPost readers: The Huffington Post is investigating the effects of North Carolina's right-to-work law. Do you work in that state or know someone who does? Email to describe the conditions of your job, whether you think it should be unionized and why. Include a phone number if you're willing to be interviewed.