8 in 10 cotton gin employers investigated in Southeast violated labor laws

Companies were ordered to pay over $280,000 in back wages
A cotton picker harvests crops on Aug. 23, 2016. Bloomberg photo by Eddie Seal.

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A cotton picker harvests crops on Aug. 23, 2016. Bloomberg photo by Eddie Seal.

Federal investigators uncovered scores of labor violations in the cotton production industry.

In a 17-month stretch between November 2019 and March 2021, authorities investigated 71 cotton gin employers across the Southeast, including in Georgia. Over 80% of those employers were found to have violated labor laws, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, or provisions of the H-2A visa program for seasonal farmworkers.

The most common violations included failure to pay proper overtime and failure to “ensure housing safety and health,” according to a news release published Monday by the U.S. Department of Labor. Agricultural employers who rely on migrant labor through the H-2A program are required to provide worker housing that meets safety standards.

As a result of the investigations undertaken by the Wage and Hour Division, the Department of Labor’s enforcement arm, authorities recovered over $280,000 in back wages and nearly $11,000 in liquidated damages for 620 workers.

“Our investigations show that far too many cotton gin operators are not compliant with federal labor law,” said Juan Coria, WHD regional administrator based in Atlanta. “The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division maintains a dogged commitment to ensure that cotton gin workers receive all of their hard-earned wages as well as the worker protections they are due.”

Modern-day cotton gins are factory-like facilities that rely on heavy machinery to separate seeds from cotton fibers before pressing them into large bales of lint, a far cry from Eli Whitney’s 1793 original. Ginning is an early step in the process that turns cotton from field crop to fabric.

Among the companies sanctioned by the Department of Labor is Sowega Cotton Gin and Warehouse, based in Climax, Georgia, which was ordered to pay nearly $13,000 in back wages and penalties.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Georgia is the second-largest cotton producing state in the U.S., after Texas.

Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.

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