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Berry farm company fined $3.5 million over worker abuses

Seasonal agricultural workers
California growers have recruited record numbers of agricultural guest workers under the H-2A temporary visa program. But with that rise in the foreign labor force come abuses.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The country’s biggest blueberry producer has been barred from recruiting foreign agricultural guest workers for three years and will have to pay $3.5 million in back wages and penalties as part of a court agreement reached with the U.S. Labor Department.

Munger Bros., based in Delano, Calif., shunned or failed to adequately recruit U.S.-based workers in favor of foreign guest workers recruited under the federal H-2A visa program, according to the Labor Department. Once here, those guest workers weren’t adequately paid and were housed in unsanitary facilities.

For the record:
5:04 PM, Dec. 09, 2019 A previous version of this article said Munger Bros. was ordered to pay $3.6 million in back wages. The company was ordered to pay a combination of back wages and penalties totaling $3.5 million.

The ban and fine are among the harshest penalties imposed this year on California growers, who have recruited record numbers of foreign laborers. Munger and its affiliated companies, Washington-based Sarbanand Farms and Crowne Cold Storage, based in Stockton, did not contest the allegations, according to the Labor Department.

The charges centered on several hundred workers recruited through a Mexico-based labor contractor to pick and pack berries for Munger’s network of agricultural operations in California and Washington.

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Munger-controlled Sarbanand Farms in northern Washington’s Whatcom County has been the center of labor unrest and enforcement actions since a guest worker there fell ill and later died in 2017. The company faces a class-action lawsuit accusing it of human trafficking and labor violations, and has been penalized several times by Washington state labor authorities, according to public records and published accounts.

A Munger spokesman said, “The Department of Labor has presented a novel theory that has been never used before, but our obligations to our employees, customers, and the community motivated us to comply with the settlement.” The spokesman would not elaborate.

The U.S. Labor Department has held growers jointly responsible for infractions committed by unaffiliated labor contractors, and won a precedent-setting case in 2013.


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