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Maine companies sued over treatment of migrant blueberry pickers

By Dave Sherwood

BOWDOINHAM Maine (Reuters) - Two Maine companies and a labor recruiter are being sued for allegedly mistreating Haitian migrant workers during the state's wild blueberry harvest in 2008.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor last week, alleges that a contractor for Coastal Blueberry Service and Hancock Foods lured 18 workers from New Jersey's blueberry fields and elsewhere without contracts.

Many workers made the trip crammed three to a seat and in the aisle of an old bus, often without luggage, according to the suit filed by the non-profit Pine Tree Legal Assistance.

The suit says the workers were not paid fair wages or provided decent housing. It cites 250 violations of the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.

One man slept in an abandoned vehicle while working in Maine, a woman opted to sleep in a car rather than share a bedroom with several men and others stayed in pest-infested bunkhouses, the lawsuit said.

The Haitian workers are legal U.S. residents, many of whom live in Florida, said Nan Heald, Pine Tree's director, who called the case "egregious."

"It's not right to allow some people to gain advantage over law-abiding companies by undercutting worker protections in order to save money," she said.

Heald said it took more than four years to compile and document the 302-page lawsuit, which seeks $205,000 in damages and lost wages and an unspecified amount for physical and emotional harm.

An attorney for Coastal Blueberry Service and Hancock Foods both in Ellsworth, Maine, said the companies deny violating federal migrant worker laws or failing to pay wages earned.

"These companies do not mistreat their workers, and they work hard to treat all of their workers fairly," said the attorney, Frank McGuire, of Bangor.

"Hancock Foods has a large number of satisfied workers, including many of Haitian origin, who return to work at the company year after year," he said.

Maine is a major producer of wild blueberries, harvesting nearly $70 million worth in 2012, according to the University of Maine. It depends on migrant labor to harvest the native crop, which grows on some 60,000 acres (24,000 hectares) of fields, according to the university.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Eric Beech)

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