Farmworker Files Complaint For Unpaid Wages

11/19/10 7:34AM By John Dillon
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(Host) A Mexican farmworker has filed a complaint against a Charlotte dairy farm for unpaid wages.

The worker says she and two other employees are owed more than $4,000.

The worker says she was reluctant to come forward because she is in the country illegally and is afraid of being deported.

As VPR's John Dillon reports, the complaint highlights the difficulty undocumented workers face when they go to police or other authorities.

(Dillon) About 1,200 to 1,500 undocumented workers are employed on Vermont's dairy farms.

They live mostly in the shadows, in fear of deportation. Even a trip to the store can pose a risk that they'll run into police or border patrol.

So when a 28-year-old woman from Chiapas, Mexico and her family went weeks without pay, she was reluctant to go public or to file a complaint with the state.

(Farmworker) "People would like to speak up but because we are undocumented that is the fear."

(Dillon) The woman says she, her father and boyfriend are owed $4,494 dollars for their work in early November on the Mack dairy farm in Charlotte.

Through an interpreter, the woman says she's speaking out now to get her money, and to warn other workers to stay away from the farm.

(Farmworker)  "I want people to know that these farm owners treat us poorly and people should know that and we want other Mexicans to know that they should not work there because they are not going to get paid."

(Dillon) Robert Mack runs the dairy farm with his brother. He did not want to speak on tape. But Mack did not dispute how much money is owed the Mexicans. He said he does plan to pay them.

The Mexican farm workers have filed a complaint seeking their back pay with the state Department of Labor. Brendan O'Neill is with the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project, a volunteer organization that assists undocumented workers. O'Neill helped prepare the complaint. He says undocumented workers feel they have little legal recourse when faced with unsafe working conditions or unpaid wages.

(O'Neill) "It is an unequal relationship and the entire system in this case is exploiting both farm workers and farmers, really. No dairy farmer is getting rich right now off their work their doing, or their workers."

(Dillon) O'Neill says of the hundreds of dairy farms in Vermont, he's heard of just four or five that are chronically late paying their help.

Robert Appel is executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. He says police and state agencies have made progress in recent years in allowing people to file complaints without being questioned whether they're in the country legally.

(Appel) "In this particular case I understand the Department of Labor is quite willing to accept the wage claim without inquiring into immigration status. I've had conversations with the U.S. attorney and representatives of the office of attorney general who are concerned about these issues."

(Dillon) Meanwhile, the Vermont attorney general is proposing a new policy that tries to protect undocumented workers who are victims of a crime from immigration enforcement.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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