LEXINGTON, SC – A federal court has sentenced a South Carolina labor contractor — Balcazar Nature Harvesting LLC and its operators — after a U.S. Department of Labor and multi-agency investigation found the employers subjected migrant farmworkers to exploitative labor, confiscated passports and housed workers in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.
The farm labor contractor provided seasonal and H-2A workers in Lexington to harvest fruits and vegetables for distribution and sale at local farmer’s markets and by national and regional grocery chains such as IGA, Ingles and Whole Foods.
On June 15, 2023, the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina sentenced Enrique Balcazar of Batesburg to 40 months in federal prison and three years of court-ordered supervision following his term of imprisonment. The court also ordered him to pay $11,332 in restitution and to forfeit 23 firearms, ammunition, body armor and more than $32,000 in funds. He pleaded guilty to labor trafficking and passport confiscation to further labor trafficking in September 2022.
The court also sentenced Enrique’s daughter, Elizabeth Balcazar, to time served of two months after pleading guilty to fraud in foreign labor contracting, also in September 2022. The court ordered her to pay $508,125 in restitution for unpaid wages owed to 55 workers and subjected her three years of court-ordered supervision, one year of a curfew and 100 hours of community service to benefit the immigrant community.
In addition, the court also ordered Balcazar Nature Harvesting LLC to pay, jointly and severally, $508,125 in restitution to 55 affected workers and forfeit more than $32,000 in business funds. The business is also subject to three years of probation.
The court’s action follows an investigation by the department’s Wage and Hour Division that found Balcazar — operating as Balcazar Nature Harvesting — violated multiple requirements of the H-2A temporary agricultural workers visa program, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and Fair Labor Standards Act.
Balcazar contracted the workers to harvest spinach, strawberries, tomatoes, corn, asparagus and zucchini.
Specifically, the division determined Balcazar violated federal laws by:
Not meeting job orders’ requirements by omitting terms and conditions, including additional worksites.
Intimidating and discriminating against workers with threats to call immigration services if the workers left their jobs. The employer also withheld some workers’ passports and visas.
Not paying workers based on the adverse effect wage rate and making them work for more hours than the job order stated.
Requiring workers to purchase gloves and knives needed for their tasks.
Not reimbursing workers for inbound and outbound transportation to and from their place of residence. The employer also failed to reimburse workers for their visa costs at a price of $190 each.
Failing to meet the three-quarters guarantee for work hours because workers left the jobs due to exploitation. The employer also paid seasonal workers less than H-2A workers for the same work.
Charging workers $100 per week for meals, a cost not disclosed in the job contract.
Failing to provide housing that met safety and health requirements.
“Workers traveled far from home to provide for their families and found themselves stripped of their dignity, freedom and basic human rights,” said Wage and Hour Division District Director Jamie Benefiel in Columbia, South Carolina. “The U.S. Department of Labor and its Wage and Hour Division are engaged in a battle to combat labor exploitation and hold those who callously engage in it legally accountable.”
In a similar proceeding, a federal court in Florida sentenced farm labor contractor, Bladimir Moreno — owner of Los Villatoros Harvesting LLC in Bartow, Florida — to nearly 10 years in prison for his part in a racketeering conspiracy to subject migrant farmworkers to forced labor, obstruct investigators, intimidate witnesses and house workers in unsafe and unhealthy living conditions.
The division offers farmworker rights information, compliance assistance resources for employers and 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 (487-9243). 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 and iPhone Timesheet App – now available in Spanish – for free.
In addition to the Department of Labor’s work, the case was jointly investigated by Homeland Security Investigations, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the U.S. Department of Justice. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Elliott B. Daniels and Carrie Fisher Sherard prosecuted the case.
Read this news release En Español.