Minnesota vegetable farmer agrees to pay for violating H-2A

By Stephen Davies

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 26, 2016 - Minnesota farmer John Svihel has agreed to pay about $576,000 in back wages and other restitution to Caribbean workers after paying them illegally low wages and withholding the difference for his personal spending.

John James Svihel, who operates Svihel Vegetable Farm in Foley, Minn., conspired with Sandra Lee Bart of Seven Hills, Ohio, and her employee, Wilian Socrate Cabrera, in obtaining workers from Cabrera's hometown of Navarrete, Dominican Republic, from 2010 to 2015.

Cabrera charged the workers a one-time recruitment fee of between $420 and $2,385, as well as an annual fee of $374, which he split with Bart, according to the Labor Department, whose Wage and Hour Division investigated the violations of the department's H-2A temporary worker program.

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During its investigation, the Wage and Hour Division also discovered that Svihel had violated H-2A wage provisions “and, in some cases, overtime rules governing 36 other workers from Mexico and Eastern Europe,” the Labor Department said. “Svihel owes a total of $199,218 to these workers, employed under H-2A and J1 visas.”

Cabrera pleaded guilty in July to one count of fraud in foreign labor contracting and is now in jail awaiting sentencing. Bart was convicted following a jury trial but has requested a new trial. “Because the court did not examine three jurors whose potential premature deliberations raise legitimate questions about their impartiality, defendant should receive a new trial,” says the request filed Aug. 19.

“If workers refused to pay the fees they were told they would not be allowed to return to work for the next growing season,” the department said. “Bart and Cabrera demanded and collected reimbursement for the full cost of workers' airfare. In addition, Svihel kept a percentage of the workers' wages - totaling about $90,000 - that he spent on personal travel and leisure.”

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“Lining your pockets with the hard-earned wages of foreign workers is unacceptable and undermines the foreign visa program's value to supply thousands of workers to the American agricultural industry,” said Dr. David Weil, administrator of the Wage and Hour Division. “The behavior of the parties involved here is criminal and should remind workers and employers that the Wage and Hour Division will use all available enforcement tools - and engage our partners in diplomatic corps and law enforcement - to protect workers' rights and ensure honest employers have a fair and level playing field on which to do business.”

“As proven at trial, Bart and Cabrera recruited Svihel in 2010 to hire four Dominican workers using the H-2A visa program, which provides temporary visas to agriculture workers, falsely telling him that a church in the Dominican Republic would pay for workers' airfares,” the Justice Department said Aug. 8 following Bart's conviction. “When the wage Svihel was required to pay the workers was increased from $9.75 per hour to $10.62 per hour in 2011, Svihel expressed hesitation in continuing to use the program. Bart told Svihel that the workers would be willing to pay wage and airfare kickbacks to make up the difference.”

According to the terms of his plea agreement, Svihel will be required to hire a labor monitor at his own expense. “The monitor will visit the farm twice during the season to interview workers, inspect housing and vehicles, and review records,” the Labor Department said.

His attorney, Susan Gaertner, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that prosecutors are confident he will treat his workers fairly. In the plea agreement, the government agreed not to debar him from participation in the visa program in the future.

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