Feds: Arizona farm kept workers in squalor, didn't fully pay

Posted at 1:12 PM, May 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-17 00:32:27-04

The federal government says an Arizona farm has kept temporary Mexican workers in squalid conditions and paid some of them only a fraction of what they are owed.

The Department of Labor filed a lawsuit against G Farms in El Mirage, located just northwest of Phoenix, last week. A judge was scheduled to hear arguments on Tuesday.

The department says that G Farms housed about 70 workers here on a visa in a dangerous and unsanitary encampment composed of school buses, semitrailers, a cargo container and an open-air shed.

An attorney for G Farms said the allegations were overblown and inaccurate and that the farm has already placed workers in a hotel or apartment. Attorney Rick Mahrle said he wouldn't be arguing against a government request for a temporary restraining order and that the farm would comply with all regulations.

"There's been no intention here of ever violating any regulations or doing anything that harms these people who come and harvest the crops here in Arizona," Mahrle said.

According to court documents, the farm crammed 10 workers into each school bus to sleep in. The rear exits of the buses were blocked by a mobile air conditioner, creating a safety risk. The documents state the air conditioner only blew hot air.

An investigator with the department also found that the shower facilities were filthy and trash-ridden and that an electrical cord used to supply lighting inside ran through the shower area and was exposed to standing water, which could result in electrocution.

The workers from Sinaloa, Mexico, arrived in late April to harvest onions. They're paid between 13 cents and 17 cents per bag of onions they pick, which Mahrle said usually results in more than the $10.95 per hour they're supposed to be paid. The farm doesn't track employee hours, but investigators say they work 45 to 50 hours a week.

The department says some of the workers weren't paid what they were owed, which Mahrle said happened in only a small number of cases and that the farm is providing back pay.

Mahrle has also denied allegations from the government that workers were threatened against cooperating with investigators. "We simply did not do that, ever. We are not intimidating anybody or telling them they can't talk to the investigator," he said.

Marhle said most of the workers are now in apartments, and some are in a hotel while the farm finds more units.

According to the manager of a nearby apartment complex, workers from G Farms started living there three days ago. The manager told ABC15 that a representative from G Farms asked if they could fit 14 migrant workers into a single two bedroom apartment, claiming each worker only needed 60 square feet of living space.

The apartment told us they said no to 14 people and instead agreed on five per unit. However, the complex said it knows G Farms is already breaking that rule.