Migrant workers file lawsuit against Van Horn chile farm owners

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By: Stacey Welsh

EL PASO, Texas -- A group of 14 migrant workers are suing a Van Horn, Texas chile farm over what the workers said are unsanitary living conditions. That includes bedrooms that are too small and bug-infested living space.

"As humans and workers, we deserve more respect," migrant farmworker Julian Lopez said.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid is representing the workers. Attorney Sarah Rich said workers came forward in May and June of 2013 after spending about three weeks working for the farm owned by AJK Enterprises. Rich said that company is based in Seminole, Texas.

KFOX14 tried contacting the company and its attorney Wednesday, but did not hear back.

"Federal law states that in order to house migrant workers, a company needs to get authorization from the Department of Labor to do that. That means an inspection of the housing facility. That had never happened," Rich said.

Rich said the owners should have arranged an inspection with the state before anyone started working there.

She also said the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs has since visited the facility around August and October of 2013 and conditions had hardly improved.

The workers were promised employment from June to November of 2013, a timeframe many said is unusually long for migrant farm workers.

"There were bedrooms for one to three workers, seven at the most. We had 35 with only one bathroom," migrant farmworker Jacobo Panfilo said.

Workers and Rich said the farm also forced workers to spend hours during the day without water while working outside. They also said toilets were not provided outside.

"Some people would just lose patience, lose energy and end up not being able to shower. They're working outdoors in the sun at a dirty job for 10 hours a day in the summer," Rich said. Rich also said migrant workers often don't come forward in cases like this.

"They're scared. They live in pretty precarious circumstances a lot of the time, they make very little money, they're always worried about being blacklisted by employers who find out that they're troublemakers," Rich said.

Many of the workers in this case are also over 70 years old. Rich said they are asking for about $5,000 in damages for each worker.

"We want farmworkers around here to see this and realize that we're here to fight for them. We will," Rich said.

"What I really want is for the law to intervene and make them responsible for their actions," Lopez said.



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