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Nash farmer pulls away from labor dispute

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ROCKY MOUNT — A Nash County farmer is distancing himself from a labor contractor accused of human rights abuses by a small group of Mexican migrant workers.

Joel Boseman grows sweet potatoes, watermelons and other produce in Rocky Mount’s Battleboro community. He employs around 90 migrant workers.

“I have nothing to hide,” Boseman said. “I pay my people good.”

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee is petitioning farm owners in eastern North Carolina including Boseman to recognize a workers’ union and negotiate to end supposed wage theft and intimidation some workers claim to have suffered.

Farm labor contractor Salvador Barajas is accused of stealing workers’ wages and putting their health at risk through dilapidated housing and by forcing them to purchase unsanitary and inhumane meals at illegal prices, according to information provided by Marlena Proper Deida Ramos Graves, the union’s director of communications.

Growers have declined to engage the union, saying they’re not responsible for Barajas’ alleged actions.

Labor contractors like Barajas enlist, transport and oversee migrant workers for farmworkers. Attempts to contact Barajas were unsuccessful.

Boseman said he has used Barajas’ workers sparingly.

“He was my crew chief years ago, but I let him go,” Boseman said. “He’s helped out on occasion since then.”

Boseman said he allows FLOC open access to his workers.

The Enterprise interviewed a group of Boseman’s workers late last week. They said they like working for Boseman, he treats them well and they are well paid. They said Boseman has drivers take them to town on Sundays so they can shop, do laundry and send money back home.

“It’s bulls--t that I’m tossed into the same pot as this guy,” Boseman said. “During watermelon season, my workers were earning an average of $1,000 a week.”

Boseman said his field hands have the option of working Sundays and knockoff time is always 2 p.m. That way, he said, they have time to take care of their business.

“We work a lot of hours, we all make a lot of money,” Boseman said.

Pittsboro attorney Robert J. Willis represents the workers through the union. He sent settlement letters to Barajas and the farmers asking for portable toilets and hand-washing facilities in the fields.

Willis said FLOC considers Barajas and the farmowners to be co-employers. He said a lawsuit will be filed if workers’ terms aren’t met.

A possible reason Boseman has been connected with Barajas is the deep pockets of one of Boseman’s business partners.

Billionaire Steve Wordsworth and Boseman are linked through a limited liability corporation operating as Battleboro East Properties, land lease agreements with the Rocky Mount City Council and the purchase of businesses including a farming equipment company.

In 2012, Wordsworth and members of his Rocky Mount family sold their food distribution business, which Forbes magazine valued at $6 billion.

Wordsworth is also a former part owner of the Carolina Panthers.

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