Workers win case, no money
Even when they win in court, workers bilked out of their pay can lose.
It took three years for California Rural Legal Assistance to win a $325,000 judgment against an unlicensed labor contractor accused of exploiting about 100 farmworkers in Yuba, Sutter and Butte counties.
In a related case, a former Yuba City farmer was ordered in July to pay nearly $53,000 in back wages and penalties to 15 workers. Six of those were recruited to the Mid-Valley from Arizona, according to federal court documents filed in Sacramento.
That adds up to nearly $380,000, but to date none of the workers has been paid, according to Lee Pliscou, directing attorney of CRLA's Marysville office.
“Even though all the workers didn't get the money that they earned, it was still an important case to bring,” Pliscou said. “The number of workers was so large - and the amount of cheating was so large - that we couldn't let it continue.”
CRLA filed suit in 2001 against five local farmers and Mohammad Nawaz Khan, who provided workers for orchard operations in Sutter and Yuba counties. (The defendant should not be confused with a licensed Yuba-Sutter contractor with a similar name, Pliscou said.)
Mohammad Nawaz Khan filed for bankruptcy shortly after the lawsuit was filed in 2001, but he still owes $325,000 in back wages and penalties according to a 2004 settlement filed in U.S. District Court. The farmer, Harbans Bath, still owes workers nearly $53,000, Pliscou said, but he liquidated his assets and moved to India before the debt could be collected.
In 2003, about a dozen workers received payments ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars in a settlement reached with a handful of area growers who utilized workers via Khan. None of them sought legal help, Pliscou said; the case only came to light after some desperate workers tried to escape their harsh living conditions.
“These people came here to work in the orchards to earn some money,” he said. “They did not come here to sue and be involved in a lawsuit.” While some of the workers are still in the area, many moved on to other states or simply disappeared. That's what bothers Pliscou most.
“There are many whose identity we never knew and whose story remains a mystery,” he said. “I think it's a shame that these workers remain so anonymous.