The 13 Black farm workers who sued two Delta Farms — accusing the farm operators of racists hiring practices and paying white visa workers from South Africa more per hour — have reached a settlement outside of court, their attorneys announced this week.
The terms of the agreement forbid the parties from disclosing the settlements’ dollar amounts.
“But it was a significant amount of money,” said Mississippi Center for Justice Attorney Rob McDuff, who represented the workers. “I think the settlements demonstrate it’s far better for these companies and these farms to pay people properly than to ignore the law.”
Both Sunflower County farms — Pitts Farms and Harris Russell Farms — were featured in a Mississippi Today investigation that found a pattern of misuse of the H-2A visa program in the Delta.
Pitts, a soybean, corn, and cotton farm, and Harris Russell, a catfish farm, brought in white South Africans through the visa program, which is intended to only be used when farms cannot find enough local workers.
The program requires farm owners to pay both local workers and foreign workers the same wage, but years of paystubs obtained by Mississippi Today showed Black workers made mostly the federal minimum wage of $7.25 while getting fewer and fewer hours each season. The H-2A workers took home upwards of $11 an hour.
Eventually, the local workers said they were told they no longer had jobs, according to the lawsuits and interviews Mississippi Today had with former workers.
Ty Pinkins, a former attorney on the case, said the result of the lawsuits has pressured other farms with visa workers into following federal mandates over pay for their local employees.
“Many of the Black workers have expressed excitement and they’re happy that having the courage to come forward has caused a lot of farmworkers to receive a pay rate to the degree they were supposed to get in the first place,” Pinkins said.
Mississippi Today’s investigation found Pitts Farms had already been fined for paying its local workers less money than visa workers and not properly offering jobs back to local workers by the Department of Labor. But the DOL only audited the farm’s paychecks and bank statements for a two-year period — the standard for its investigations.
That meant most of the men in the Pitts Farms lawsuit, filed in 2021, didn’t receive any of the federally mandated backwages the farm had to pay. They had stopped working for Pitts before the audit period.
Harris Russell was investigated by the federal labor department after the lawsuit was filed and Mississippi Today’s investigation was published. The catfish farm, along with 10 other farms, were fined a collective $122,610. The string of investigations recovered wages for 45 workers totaling $134,532.
Neither Pitts or Harris Russell farms responded to a request for comment.
In June, Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh visited the Delta and met with some of the men in the lawsuits. Two months later, the labor department began its investigations of the 11 other farms that were recently fined.
McDuff said he and his colleagues at the Mississippi Center for Justice and Southern Migrant Legal Services plan to file more lawsuits against other farms with pay discrepancies between Black local workers and white South African workers.
“Many other Delta farms are engaging in these unlawful practices and more suits will be coming against those who do not pay fair wages to the local workers,” said Amal Bouhabib, another one of the workers’ attorneys.
Editor’s note: The Mississippi Center For Justice President and CEO Vangela Wade serves on Mississippi Today’s board of trustees.