Two stories about the pointy end of the capitalist stick to start our week. First, Erik Loomis from Lawyers, guns and money pushed us to this weird story in the Iowa Capital Journal about how two Iowa trucking companies allegedly conspired to import South African workers as cheap labor through a cattle-feeding operation that didn’t exist. This landed them in court for fraud.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa by the national nonprofit Farmworker Justice and Iowa Legal Aid. The defendants are Kuchenbecker Excavating and H&S Farms-Livestock, their owners, as well as a Tennessee worker placement company, Golden Opportunities International. The companies are accused of conspiracy and racketeering activities involving “numerous acts of visa fraud, wire fraud, and overseas employment contract fraud, all of which are ongoing and continuing today.” ‘today’.
Trent Taylor, an attorney with Farmworker Justice, said Friday that the practices alleged in the lawsuit appear to be relatively common in the agricultural industry. “In general, businesses have often, through different means, resorted to different types of fraud to circumvent restrictions on the use of temporary migrant workers in the United States,” he said. Companies hire migrant workers, theoretically for seasonal agricultural work, to obtain cheap labor. Workers’ visa status makes them much less likely to challenge any violations related to the visa program or wage and hour laws, Taylor said.
At the center of the story is an episode involving a 59-year-old South African named Carel Hanekom, who was enticed by a business representative to come to Iowa to work on a livestock farm that a) didn’t had no livestock, and b) was not a farm. Instead, with his guest worker visa secured, Hanekom showed up hoping to transport food and chicken manure. Its functions turned out to be somewhat different.
Hanekom accepted the job and left his home in South Africa to come to Rake, Iowa, where he was put to work as a long-haul trucker, spending most nights in hotels while transporting loads of rock used to build a new airstrip at an air base and carrying construction materials for a bridge and power plant. Hanekom had to use his own money to pay for his meals during his trip, according to the lawsuit. His hourly wage would be well below the prevailing wage for non-agricultural truck drivers.
Not only does this make it seem like Hanekom was completely screwed, but it also seems like companies weren’t having sleepless nights worrying about public safety. A 59 year old man comes here hoping to haul grain and chicken droppings from here to there, and he ends up hauling loads of rock long distances across the country? I rode a lot in Iowa. The place is flat like an airport runway, and on the highways truckers think they’re flying F-16s. Hell, I’d sue those bastards too.
A Tennessee recruiting company called, and I’m not kidding about this, Golden Opportunities International, is also being sued. They allegedly recruited South Africans for this cheap labor bait and switch scheme. And it didn’t start with the unfortunate Mr. Hanekom.
Golden Opportunities allegedly had knowledge of the true nature of the work being performed by H-2A workers at Rake and collaborated with the Iowa companies to defraud the U.S. Department of Labor. Since 2018, the two Iowa companies have reportedly filed at least a dozen H-2A applications with the federal government, through which they brought South African workers to Iowa. During the same period, more than 40 South African workers reportedly left their jobs in northern Iowa before the end of their contracts due to the harm they suffered from fraudulent misrepresentations on their vouchers. order.
Trained to target and dismantle terrorist groups and transnational drug cartels, special agents with Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, were investigating something very different: working conditions at Central Romana Corp., a major exporter of sugar to the United States, whose top executive is Alfonso Fanjul, a billionaire businessman from Florida. Agents spent days in March secretly questioning Haitian cane cutters, who were being transported to the hotel from the sprawling 240,000-acre Central Romana plantation next door, where many workers, along with their families, live in dilapidated camps known as bateyes.
The Fanjuls are known for having real juice in Washington, having been lavish bipartisan donors for years. This is why their operations in countries like the Dominican Republic have managed to survive numerous run-ins with the law. This time it might be different.
But the investigation and deployment of HSI agents to the Dominican Republic, disclosed here for the first time, indicate significant new federal oversight of the country’s sugar industry. It could also represent a major step forward in enforcing U.S. laws allowing companies and their executives to be held criminally liable for labor exploitation in their supply chains.
A series of lawsuits and reports from government agencies, civil society groups and academics – as well as extensive media investigations – have exposed the dire conditions facing cane cutters in Central Romana and their families, including substandard corporate housing, often without electricity or running water. In dozens of interviews with Reveal and Mother Jones over the past four years, workers and their advocates have described inadequate protective equipment, poor medical care, low wages, chronic debt and intimidation of by the company’s armed security forces.
An investigation by HSI that results in criminal charges against Central Romana or the company’s executives would be “unprecedented,” according to Kenneth Kennedy, a retired special agent with the division who led efforts to expand its work targeting forced labor in goods imported into the United States. “This could be the first time a company has been held criminally responsible for forced labor in its own supply chains. »
And that should scare a number of American companies. Being responsible for how every link in your supply chain is managed would represent a huge upheaval, from the sugar industry to clothing manufacturers. And, aware of this, and having already been hit by American customs, which banned the importation of their company’s products into the United States, the Fanjuls are preparing.
Homeland Security Investigations’ investigation comes as Central Romana flexes its muscle in Washington against the export ban. Congressional disclosure reports show Central Romana paid Akin Gump, who Sturla confirmed was hired for his “experience in international trade law,” to lobby House members over the ban . Another payment of $25,000 for lobbying the Department of State and U.S. Customs and Border Protection were placed in the office of James “Wally” Brewster, U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic during the Obama administration.
In August, Alfonso Fanjul, president and CEO of Palm Beach-based Central Romana, sent a letter to former U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, a longtime ally of President Joe Biden who now serves as an adviser presidential special from the Department of State. advisor for the Americas. In the letter, obtained by Reveal and Mother Jones, Fanjul said he was “terribly upset” by the forced labor allegations and asked for Dodd’s help to “request (Customs and Border Protection) to lift their sanctions against our company…Chris, we have been friends for a long time,” wrote Fanjul, who has contributed millions of dollars to Democratic campaigns, including Dodd’s. “I am a man of honor. …I will never allow my company to treat our workers in a way that deserves the treatment we received from CBP.
And that’s how the world works. For some people anyway.
Charles P Pierce is the author of four books, most recently Stupid Americaand has been a journalist since 1976. He lives near Boston and has three children.