IOWA CITY | Migrant workers in Iowa are vulnerable, often cheated of wages and living in substandard housing, an IowaWatch investigation revealed.

Over the course of three years, one Iowa lawyer dealt with 39 migrant worker cases of wage theft, broken contracts, substandard housing, working arrangement violations and Agricultural Workers Protection Act violations.

Attorneys who spoke with IowaWatch said many cases likely go unreported because workers are afraid of losing their jobs or fear deportation. Such workers are often at the mercy of farm labor contractors, who receive little oversight from the large agricultural companies that hire them.

A permit is required to house migrant workers in Iowa, but evaluation of the housing is self-administered and inspections are made only following complaints.

Some contractors fail to provide workers with pay stubs that include hours worked, which makes it difficult for workers to prove wage theft if they bring a complaint.

Contractors are hired by large agricultural businesses to recruit, house and supervise migrant workers. The companies are supposed to ensure contractors are registered under a federal license but often are not held liable for a contractor’s actions.

"I wish the contractors would be more humane, that they wouldn’t abuse their power,” said Noe Alegria, a migrant worker since 2010 in Iowa and Nebraska. "Instead of cheating us, that they’d pay us what we’ve earned. Because if it weren’t for us, the workers, the job wouldn’t get done.”

Alegria, 51, of San Juan, Texas, was one of 13 workers who filed a lawsuit this year against Monsanto and three individuals who recruited and housed workers. The workers sought wages due that were not paid. Monsanto settled the case.

"You don’t become rich working as a migrant. I’m doing this to help my children. It’s a sacrifice,” he said.

Alegria worked in Iowa for the first time in summer 2011. He and the other workers in the lawsuit detasseled and sorted corn near Boone in a field owned by Monsanto.

The group filed a civil action suit in February in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit legal service in southern Texas near the Mexico border, represented the workers. Although the organization is located 1,000 miles south of Iowa’s border, it often handles the cases of migrants who worked in Iowa.

The complaint claimed Monsanto and the contractor, Alejandro Moreno of McAllen, Texas, failed to pay wages when due. It said workers weren't paid fully and deductions that didn’t appear on pay stubs were taken from workers’ pay for housing and repayment of advances. The lawsuit also lists problems with housing and working conditions.

Moreno, a federally licensed labor contractor, promised the group jobs in Monsanto’s cornfields and said housing would be provided.

When they arrived, they found an old building divided into substandard apartments and delays of up to 10 days before they could begin working. Advance wages promised to help with the transition into temporary homes failed to appear.

"Some of the workers went around and collected aluminum cans for the deposit, and that’s how they fed themselves and their children,” said Marinda Van Dalen, a RioGrande Legal Aid attorney who worked the case.

Finally able to work, they ended up in fields where pesticides were being applied with no facilities to wash their clothes, Van Dalen said.

The apartments, in a building in Madrid, are owned by Francisca Moreno, who is Alejandro Moreno’s wife, and Micaela Ledezma. Repeated attempts by IowaWatch to reach the Morenos or their lawyer were unsuccessful.

The housing was approved through the Iowa Department of Public Health Migrant Labor Camp Program. The permit requires a self-administered checklist and diagram of the buildings used for housing. Inspections are made only after a complaint has been filed, and complaints are rare, said Heather Lloyd, who works with the program.

"We are doing as much as we can to make sure that we are protecting workers,” she said. "I would like to believe that if they truly thought there was a problem, they would be able to call us up. But I don’t know if they know about us, or if there is a language barrier.”

During the 2013 operating season, six operators applied for a total of 20 camp locations. All told, camps were permitted to house up to 1,682 people, but Lloyd said this doesn’t represent the number of migrant workers in Iowa. She said there is a trend of operators putting workers up in hotel rooms, a process that does not have to be monitored. Many workers also are responsible for their own housing.

An estimated 2,500 farms, orchards and nurseries in Iowa employ migrant and seasonal workers every year, according to Iowa Workforce Development.

Van Dalen said that although the case against Monsanto was settled quickly, Monsanto lawyers said they planned to deny responsibility for housing, “which is, unfortunately, very common.”

Tom Helscher, director of corporate affairs for Monsanto, responded to questions by email.

While the lawsuit complaint listed issues with substandard housing, undisclosed deductions from wages, failure to pay wages on time, failure to provide facilities and drinking water in the fields, one case of unlawfully terminated employment and other breaches of contract, Helscher said the "dispute had to do with compensation of the laborers.”

Monsanto has "agreed with counsel for the laborers on settlement terms and (is) waiting for the paperwork,” he said.

Although Moreno still holds a license to hire migrant workers, Monsanto did not contract with him in 2013, Helscher said. He did not say why.

Alegria said his family received settlement payments from Monsanto for his work and he is content with it. His son, Noe Alegria Jr., 18, who as a dependent must see the check pass through a judge first, still is waiting.

However, Van Dalen said the payments aren’t enough to deter abuse.

"The federal statutes that protect farmers is quite comprehensive and allows for damages that are really inadequate in this day and age. When you regularly sue these big companies, even when you get a settlement that is substantial from the workers’ perspective, it really doesn’t have any deterrent effect on these companies, which continue each year to violate the laws in the same ways,” she said.

This story was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a nonprofit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

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