updated 12/10/2008 7:13:37 PM ET 2008-12-11T00:13:37

The FBI confirmed Wednesday it was investigating allegations that a Louisiana farmer fired shotgun blasts over Mexican guest workers’ heads, exposed them to pesticides and paid them less than minimum wage.

The abuse allegations were outlined in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday by immigrant rights organizations on the workers’ behalf.

The lawsuit accuses Charles “Bimbo” Relan, owner of Bimbo’s Best Produce, of forcing the workers to toil in strawberry fields in Amite, La., about 75 miles northwest of New Orleans. Relan also confiscated the workers passports so they would not flee, the lawsuit claims.

“We worked hunched over for hours, doing backbreaking work. He treated us like animals. We were not human beings,” said former worker J. Jesus Martinez-Hernandez, one of 13 plaintiffs.

Hours before the lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court, FBI spokeswoman Sheila Thorne said authorities were investigating possible civil rights violations in the case. She declined further comment.

Relan didn’t immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.

According to the lawsuit, Relan oversaw fieldwork carrying a shotgun and fired it over workers’ heads “on occasion.” He also shot a stray dog to death that workers had befriended, according to the lawsuit.

Some workers walk off job
Relan did not spray the pesticides on workers, but in a proximity that “vapors from these pesticides came into contact with plaintiffs’ skin and mouths,” according to the lawsuit.

The Mexican workers were in the country legally under the H2A visa program, which enlist foreigners to do seasonal farm work for at least minimum wage. Immigrant rights groups have criticized the program for weak worker protections.

In February, some of the workers walked off the job without their passports, and protested near the farm with the help of immigrant rights organizers. Local television station WWL-TV covered the protest, and shot video of Relan cursing and denying the accusations. He later handed a bundle of passports to the protesters.

All the workers have left the farm. Many had been there for as long as three seasons.

Some of the men are now scattered across the South, and have received permission to stay in the country as law enforcement witnesses. Others are back in Mexico, said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

“Bimbo’s violations are egregious, but not uncommon,” said Soni, whose group helped the workers file the suit. “Thousands of guest workers across the South are subjected to severe exploitation.”

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and legal fees. It claims Relan violated the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the H-2A employment contracts of the workers.

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