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Labor Contractor Accuses Grower Of Hiring Illegals

A farm-labor contractor is suing a grower in California for breach of contract. Though it sounds fairly straightforward, the case could be the opening of a new front in the ongoing war over illegal immigration.

In August, AgriLabor, a division of Global Horizons, filed a lawsuit in California’s Kern County Superior Court. The suit named Munger Brothers, a Delano, Calif., farm, and two farm-labor suppliers, Ayala Agricultural Services and J&A Contractors, as defendants. It claimed Munger Brothers severed its contract with Global Horizons so it could hire cheaper, undocumented laborers from the other suppliers. Global Horizons is seeking more than $1.6 million in damages.

Theodore Hoppe, the attorney for Munger Brothers, said the charges are false.

“We’re disappointed Global Horizons is trying to use the immigration issue to solve a simple business dispute,” Hoppe said. “That’s our position.”

According to the lawsuit, Global Horizons signed a contract with Munger Brothers Feb. 9, stating the plaintiff would provide the defendant with up to 600 laborers from the federal H-2A program during the defendant’s 2006 blueberry harvest. The contract commenced April 24 and was to continue until June 20. The workers provided by Global Horizons harvested an average of 9.5 pounds of blueberries per hour. The rate matched the overall average for laborers not provided by Global, who were harvesting blueberries during the same time period.

According to Hoppe, Global Horizons claimed it could provide experienced workers who could pick at a higher rate than other local pickers. In reality, however, the workers were disorganized and didn’t pick at the rate that was claimed, he said.

The lawsuit said Munger Brothers’ harvest expectations were impossible to achieve. None of the hundreds of farm workers came close to picking the desired amount. On May 17, Munger sent the plaintiff a letter stating its laborers had not picked the required amount of blueberries, therefore the grower was terminating the contract. The plaintiff’s position is that Munger Brothers breached the contract by terminating it before the expiration date.

Munger Brothers tried to work with Global Horizons, offering to change the contract from an hourly pay rate to a rate based on performance, but the contractor was unwilling to work with those terms. At that point, Global Horizons was asked to leave, Hoppe said.

The lawsuit said Munger Brothers hired illegal workers from Ayala and J&A because they were cheaper than the $14-a-day laborers provided by Global Horizons. The use of illegal workers violated California laws and restricted the ability of the plaintiff to compete in the marketplace.

Hoppe said the workers mentioned in the lawsuit had the proper documents and did a good job picking fruit. Their pay was based on performance, and some of them made close to $14 an hour anyway, so Munger Brothers didn’t save that much on labor costs.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007