Law Students Help Seasonal Farm Workers Know Their Rights

Project Monitors 13 Camps to Help Ensure Fair Pay and Treatment
UVA Law students Siarra Rogers and R. Cooper Vaughan touch base with a fruit picker on a Central Virginia farm where he works — part of the yearly outreach the Migrant Farmworker Project provides.

UVA Law students Siarra Rogers and R. Cooper Vaughan touch base with a fruit picker on a Central Virginia farm where he works — part of the yearly outreach the Migrant Farmworker Project provides.

October 19, 2016

On a farm in the hills of Central Virginia, surrounded by acres of trees colored by the first signs of fall, a middle-aged Hispanic man in an unbuttoned, embroidered shirt considers a question. He stands in front of the long, whitewashed living quarters where an estimated 15 fruit pickers bunk. Next to him is a bulletin board thick with posters detailing workers' rights in both English and Spanish. He's focused for a moment on the neat rows of clean white bins located on either side of the dirt road. They contain hundreds of ripe green and red apples.

"Todo está bien aquí," he says: "Everything's good here."

Each fall, students with the Migrant Farmworker Project at the University of Virginia School of Law check in on 13 farms in the region to ensure seasonal agricultural workers get the pay and fair treatment they are entitled to under the law.

The project, which began in the early 1980s, is sponsored by the student-run Latin American Law Organization at UVA Law, and works in partnership with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville.

The outreach provides students experience in field investigation and immigration law, helps them bone up on their Spanish and counts toward their annual Pro Bono Challenge hours.

While the students aren't allowed to offer legal advice, they can distribute information. Each year they hand out more than a hundred "Know Your Rights" pamphlets, which include Legal Aid's phone number for referral. If the volunteers suspect a problem, they encourage the workers to get in touch.

But third-year law student R. Cooper Vaughan, who co-directs the project this year with second-year student Cory K. Sagduyu, said just showing up on a recurring basis is what seems to matter most.

"What we're doing is making our presence known," Vaughan said.

On this evening, he and first-year student Siarra Rogers survey the property and engage workers in friendly conversation whenever the Mexican-native crew seems interested. Since Vaughan is more fluent in Spanish, Rogers fills out the Outreach Visit Form, which helps the project and Legal Aid compile data on each location.

The laborers are fatigued and ready for showers or chow, but happy to engage with the students. Evasiveness may indicate problems, Vaughan said. In those situations, "it might be that something is going on with them, but their supervisor's around, and they don't want to say that they have a problem," he said.

Another good sign: Most of the men are return workers.

Although the students are not invited inside on this occasion, they see enough to feel good about their visit. Conditions at the camp are rudimentary but appear to be acceptable: There's electricity, refrigeration, private rooms, even satellite television.

The students also encounter a band of disparate, attention-seeking canines. The dogs seem to lighten the mood at the otherwise work-centered farm.

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