Big Isle farms face deadline in labor lawsuit
By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
Following an announcement Monday that Del Monte Fresh Produce Inc. will pay $1.2 million and change its migrant worker policies to settle a discrimination lawsuit, two Big Island farms have less than a month to file their consent decrees in federal court detailing their own settlement agreements.
MacFarms of Hawaii Inc. has a Dec. 9 deadline to file its consent decree in U.S. District Court in Hawaii or explain why it can’t, and Captain Cook Coffee Co. Ltd. is required to file its consent degree by Dec. 13.
The two farms, along with Del Monte, Kauai Coffee Co., Kelena Farms and Maui Pineapple Farms, were charged along with labor contractor Global Horizons with race discrimination, harassment and retaliation in their treatment of farm workers recruited from Thailand from 2003 through 2006. The Thai workers endured crowded housing, deportation threats, low pay and insufficient food, the EEOC claims.
All of the companies in the lawsuit, except Global Horizons and Maui Pineapple, have agreed to settle and are working on consent agreements. Global Horizons and Maui Pineapple are set to go to trial Feb. 11.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed the 2011 civil lawsuit, and on Monday held a news conference to detail the first of the settlement agreements. In addition to paying $1.2 million that will be distributed among at least 150 workers, Del Monte will take a number of steps to hold farm labor contractors accountable for how they treat the employees on their farms. Del Monte did not admit wrongdoing in the agreement.
This is the first effort of its kind for a farm to ensure farm labor contractor accountability for federal anti-discrimination laws.
“Del Monte has now set the bar,” said EEOC General Counsel David Lopez, adding the settlement proves “there is no de facto safe harbor from anti-discrimination laws.”
As important as the money is for reimbursing workers, more significant is the standard that is set that will protect other workers, said Anna Park, EEOC regional attorney. She said farm owners have generally laid responsibility for farm worker treatment at the feet of the farm labor contractors.
“I want to commend Del Monte for being the first to come forward and show leadership in addressing discrimination issues in the agricultural industry, which, as a whole, has been slow to enforce anti-discrimination laws,” Park said. “We hope this is wake-up call for others in the agricultural industry to follow Del Monte Fresh Produce’s lead in recognizing signs of potential abuses by farm labor contractors and taking proactive steps to hold them accountable.”
MacFarms, with approximately 200 affected employees, is among the largest, if not the largest, company in the group, in terms of how many workers are involved in the litigation, Park said. Neither MacFarms management nor its Honolulu attorney, Anne Horiuchi, returned phone calls Monday.
Steve McLaughlin, owner of Captain Cook Coffee Co., declined to discuss the case.
“I can’t say anything about it until after it’s settled,” he told Stephens Media Hawaii.
Multiple attempts by the federal court to serve papers on the company have been unsuccessful, according to court records. The company’s Honolulu attorneys terminated their representation on Dec. 12, 2012, according to records.
McLaughlin, reached at home in California, declined to say whether the company has closed, despite the fact that all of the telephone numbers associated with the company have been disconnected, the federal court can’t serve papers and there’s no number in the most recent edition of the phone book.
The EEOC is encouraging affected workers to come forward if they endured similar conditions at these farms. Thai investigator Mim Cheou has been instrumental in the case and can be reached at (213) 894-1007 or (877) 461-7818.
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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