Georgia modern-day slavery: Alleged traffickers sued by workers

Forced manual labor. Squalid housing. Recurring threats. Allegations in new lawsuit shed light on how individuals indicted in trafficking bust exploited migrant farmworkers.
A Georgia blueberry grower is being sued by a group of migrant farmworkers. (AJC archive photo)

A Georgia blueberry grower is being sued by a group of migrant farmworkers. (AJC archive photo)

In 2020 and 2021, a Georgia-based labor recruiter traveled to San Luis Potosí — a Mexican province where close to half of the population lives in poverty — to find workers willing to pick blueberries at a Peach State farm for up to $1,400 a week.

The workers say that what awaited them in Georgia was a harrowing experience of forced labor in dangerous conditions with little to no pay — and not enough food to eat. That’s according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of a group of farmworkers who took up the recruiter’s offer. Ongoing abuse, threats of violence and deportation, and the confiscation of their passports allegedly made it difficult for workers to leave.

The suit, a proposed class action, was filed last month in Georgia federal court. It was brought by three Mexican nationals on behalf of over 200 workers who legally came to work in Georgia during the 2020 and 2021 harvests through a federal guest worker program, according to the complaint.

Defendants include MBR Farms, an Atkinson County blueberry grower, and two of its labor contractors: brothers Enrique and Jose Duque. The Duques and a fourth defendant, Maria Patricio, were among the dozens of individuals indicted in South Georgia in October 2021 in what may be one of the nation’s largest-ever human trafficking cases.

That scheme, which allegedly netted conspirators more than $200 million, trapped migrant workers in conditions akin to “modern-day slavery,” according to federal prosecutors. The investigation that yielded the indictment was dubbed “Operation Blooming Onion.”

Last month’s class action suit sheds additional light on the way the alleged South Georgia traffickers may have treated vulnerable migrants.

Plaintiffs say they had to contend with squalid, rat-infested living quarters, with some being forced to sleep on the floors of overcrowded trailers.

Defendants also allegedly forced the migrant farmworkers to perform manual labor outside the scope of their agricultural visas. Some of that labor took place in other farms, where Enrique Duque would “rent” out the workers he managed, according to the complaint.

In one instance, after a worker called 911 to complain about Duque, the labor contractor allegedly berated and threatened workers.

“He said, ‘(Expletive) idiots, you guys do not have rights here’ and proceeded to threaten that he would deport them and make sure that they would never return to the U.S.,” the complaint states.

Duque did not reply to emails from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution seeking comment for this story. MBR Farms’ CEO, Barton McKinnon, also did not respond to the the AJC’s call and texts requesting comment.

According to the lawsuit, the defendants’ treatment of the migrant workers broke federal human trafficking, racketeering and labor laws.

Jim Knoepp, a senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, says that the allegations out of South Georgia are “pretty typical of the experience that a lot of [guest workers] have.”

“It’s a common thing that we see, [where] people are promised a certain level of wages, good working conditions, good living conditions and then they get here and find that it’s a different story.”

According to the suit, plaintiffs are seeking compensation for economic damages, as well as for “significant emotional and physical pain and suffering.”

The plaintiffs’ legal team would not agree to be interviewed on the suit, but released a statement saying Vedder Price, P.C. and Radford & Keebaugh, LLC were partnering to represent the workers. “We look forward to advocating on their behalf to ensure their stories are told and to secure justice for these workers,” the statement said.

Georgia is No. 2 state for agricultural guest workers

A growing but controversial federal guest worker program, known as the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program, is at the heart of the lawsuit’s allegations, as that’s the mechanism defendants used to import their workers.

Meant to help fill farmers’ labor needs when U.S. workers can’t be found, the H-2A program has been booming in Georgia. According to federal data, Georgia had 35,205 positions for H-2A workers certified in fiscal year 2021, putting it only behind Florida for most guest workers in the nation.

Farmworker advocates say there aren’t enough worker protections in the program, and that violations and exploitation run rampant.

Agribusiness representatives say that participating in the program can be bureaucratically cumbersome, with H-2A requirements for employers including housing, feeding and transporting workers. Additional H-2A rules stipulate that employers must at least pay guest workers a wage high enough to not “adversely affect” the wages of U.S. workers. In 2023, the U.S. Department of Labor determined that such a wage in Georgia is $13.67 per hour.

According to the proposed class action lawsuit, the Georgia labor contractors not only failed to compensate workers as required by law, but they also charged them over $1,000 each in bogus fees, sinking them in debt.

Anxiety over that debt and threats of deportation and violence allegedly prevented workers from fleeing.

Also weighing on H-2A workers’ minds is the fact that their legal status is tied to their employers. In most cases, getting away from an abusive situation would leave workers not only jobless but also undocumented. That would bar them from participating in the H-2A program again.

Pursuing a court case or filing an application for a T-visa – a type of immigration benefit victims of trafficking are eligible for – is difficult because access to pro-bono legal services is very limited. Those who can get those processes started must contend with the fact that it might take years to see them through.

There are additional deterrents to leaving and coming forward, Knoepp explained, when the people in charge are connected to a vast crime ring of the kind described in Operation Blooming Onion.

“If the scheme is large-scale and the people who are running the scheme are making a lot of money, workers start to worry about, ‘Well, what’s going to happen to my family if I speak out against this?’” he said. “So I definitely have a lot of respect for people who are willing to stand up for others and say, ‘This isn’t the way we should be treated.’”