For the second time in as many years, the U.S. Department of Labor has charged Michigan blueberry grower-shippers and labor contractors with multiple housing and labor law violations.
Fines of nearly $80,000 were levied against 17 grower-shippers in four southwestern Michigan counties and nine labor contractors, according to news reports broadcast by Michigan television stations, WWTV, Cadillac, and WWUP, Sault Ste. Marie. The growers also were ordered to pay nearly $28,000 in back wages and overtime.
Cornerstone Ag Enterprises, South Haven, was accused of housing and child labor violations and hit with the highest penalty, $29,000. Cornerstone co-owner Kay Trevino said the company plans to appeal, according to the news broadcasts. Labor Department investigators also found dilapidated housing, insect infestations and a lack of hot water in some migrant housing camps, the stations reported.
Thirteen months ago, the Labor Department fined grower-shippers in the same region of Michigan more than $36,000 for similar violations, including child labor law violations, prompting several retailers to reportedly stop buying from the companies.
The 2009 charges and fines prompted Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., to issue a statement urging members to redouble their efforts to abide by child labor laws.
In his statement, Stenzel said, “I know you all have policies against illegal child labor, but it is our responsibility to make sure policies don’t just sit in a binder somewhere but are being enforced every day.”
The latest charges ought not to have come as a surprise to the Michigan blueberry industry. The Department of Labor issued a warning after the 2009 citations.
“I would hope growers would get the message that we are looking, and we’re not giving passes on this,” Brad Mitchell, a spokesman for the federal department’s Office of Public Affairs, said at the time. “We hope employers become more diligent in making sure children are not in their fields.”