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Farmworkers sue Vidalia onion farmer over wages

Kate Brumback, Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) -- A group of farmworkers has sued one of the biggest producers of Vidalia onions, saying they were paid less than minimum wage and less than the foreign guest workers who worked alongside them.

The federal lawsuit was filed last week by four American farmworkers and 16 of their former co-workers against Stanley Farms LLC and its managers. It alleges the violations took place during each of the last three years.

A woman who answered the phone Thursday at Stanley Farms said she couldn't comment.

According to its website, Stanley Farms grows more than 1,000 acres of onions, as well as other crops and vegetables in southeast Georgia. The family business is owned and operated by R.T. Stanley and his three sons, all of whom are named in the lawsuit.

"We see this repeatedly," lawyer Dawson Morton, who represents the farmworkers, said in a written statement Thursday. "Farms complain that no local workers are available. But when they do hire local workers, they don't pay them fairly and don't offer them the same pay as their foreign workers. It's illegal and discourages American workers from continuing in agriculture."

The lawsuit says the American farmworkers were hired to pull onions from the ground, clip their roots and stems and put them in buckets. They were paid 40 cents for each 5-gallon bucket, which did not add up to the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. During the period in question, the foreign guest workers were paid between $9.11 and $9.38 an hour, the lawsuit says.

The farm also didn't pay for the files or shears needed to clip onions and arranged for crew leaders or supervisors to sell those to the workers in the field — along with other items, like food, drinks, cigarettes and alcohol — further reducing their wages, the lawsuit says. The workers also claim they were transported in unsafe vehicles and worked in fields that had recently been sprayed with pesticides.

Georgia's Vidalia onions are known for their trademark sweetness that growers say is caused by the soil and climate. By state and federal law, only those onions grown in 13 counties and portions of seven others can carry the Vidalia name.