TAMPA, FL – A Florida labor contractor is headed to prison for nearly 10 years after a U.S. Department of Labor and multi-agency investigation into his part in a conspiracy to subject migrant farmworkers to forced labor, obstruct investigators, intimidate witnesses and house workers in unsafe and unhealthy living conditions.
On Dec. 29, 2022, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court Middle District of Florida sentenced Bladimir Moreno – a Bartow farm labor contractor who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit forced labor and racketeering charges – to 118 months in prison and to pay more than $175,000 in restitution to the victims. The court also debarred Moreno from participating in the H-2A temporary agricultural workers visa program and assessed penalties totaling $203,350.
The prosecution is part of an investigation begun in 2017 by federal agencies in several states. Workers who escaped their unhealthy living and forced labor conditions first reported the violations to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community-based human rights organization in Florida.
The sentencing follows a U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division investigation that found Moreno, owner of Los Villatoros Harvesting LLC, violated multiple requirements of the H-2A temporary agricultural workers visa program, and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and Fair Labor Standards Act.
Los Villatoros Harvesting LLC employed workers to harvest watermelons for Carlton Farms Inc., operating as Sun Fresh Farms Inc. in Wauchula, Florida, for sale to Walmart and Kroger locations. In Indiana, the employer provided crews for Cardinal Farms in Oaktown and Wonning Melons in Vincennes to pack melons for sale through a distributor to chains including Kroger, Schnucks and Sam’s Clubs.
Specifically, the division determined the company and its owner violated federal laws by:
Failing to provide a fixed work site by pulling workers from their assigned Florida work site to an unapproved Florida farm, and then relocating them to work in Kentucky and Indiana intermittently.
Not reimbursing workers for visa and application fees, and for inbound transportation expenses to the work site, as the law requires.
Failing to have accurate records, including earnings, hours statements, and rate and frequency of pay.
Not cooperating with, and providing false records to, investigators. The employer also intimidated workers who agreed to be interviewed by investigators.
Failing to meet safety and health requirements for the workers’ housing. Investigators found the employer failed to provide a bed, cot or bunk for each occupant in sleeping rooms. At one location, the contractor housed 44 workers in 10 rooms and provided only 240 square feet for living space and 60 square feet for a bathroom.
“Human trafficking is a scourge caused by unscrupulous employers who profit by exploiting vulnerable workers, many of whom are afraid to complain about the awful situation in which they find themselves,” said Wage and Hour Division Regional Administrator Juan Coria in Atlanta. “The U.S. Department of Labor and its Wage and Hour Division are engaged in an ongoing fight to identify human trafficking, to end the misery it brings and hold those who callously engage in it accountable.”
The division and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers directed referrals about the case to the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for criminal investigation.
“When we uncover signs of human trafficking – as we did in the Los Villatoros Harvesting case – we work closely with our partner agencies to hold employers to account for their crimes,” added Coria. “The findings in this investigation, and the subsequent debarment and sentencing of Bladimir Moreno show how effective our collaboration can be.”
The division offers farmworker rights information, compliance assistance resources for employers, an agriculture compliance assistance toolkit to ensure compliance with the law.
Employees and employers can also contact the Wage and Hour Division at its toll-free number, 1-866-4-US-WAGE. Workers can call the Wage and Hour Division confidentially with questions – regardless of where they are from – and the department can speak with callers in more than 200 languages. Learn more about the Wage and Hour Division, including a search tool to use if you think you may be owed back wages collected by the division. Workers and employers alike can help ensure hours worked and pay are accurate by downloading the department’s Android Timesheet App – now available in Spanish – for free.