Midwest Center wins Lisagor Award for reporting on migrant labor abuses

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John Fulton/for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

A migrant farmworker leans against the front door of her apartment at the Pine Creek housing facility in Holland, Michigan, on June 16, 2016.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting has been awarded the 2017 Peter Lisagor Award in the online category for the Best Investigative/Public Service Reporting for our story:

Monsanto, seed-corn companies continue use of contractors despite allegations of migrant labor abuses.

According to a release announcing the winners:

The Chicago Headline Club, the largest Society of Professional Journalists chapter in the country, presented the winners of its 2017 Lisagor Awards at its annual awards dinner May 11 before nearly 300 people at the Union League Club of Chicago. The awards recognize the best of Chicago journalism and are named for Peter Lisagor, the Chicago Daily News’ Washington bureau chief from 1959 to 1976.

Reported by Laird Townsend and edited by Brant Houston, with additional reporting, editing and research by Johnathan Hettinger, Robert Holly, Pam Dempsey and the staff at Investigative Reporters and Editors, this story took a deep look at the systematic abuses of migrant labor for seed-corn companies. Research assistance was provided by Lauren Grandestaff, Ginger Hervey, Renee Hickman, Samantha Sunne, and Francisco Vara-Orta

For the past few years, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting has been reporting on migrant worker living and labor conditions – uncovering life and safety issues while employers face little repercussions.  

Each year, seed-corn companies like Monsanto bring in thousands of laborers to produce the hybrid seeds, most of which are genetically modified.

The companies sell the seeds to farmers worldwide, in what has become an $11 billion GMO corn industry. The farmers grow the seeds into corn for sale as food, ethanol, livestock feed and components of a range of industrial products, from fireworks to ceiling tiles.

A review of federal documents, lawsuits and Monsanto records – and interviews with advocates and experts – shows that the allegations include broken recruiting promises, minimum-wage violations, improperly withheld pay and substandard living conditions in seed-corn production of Monsanto, and Pioneer, and other companies.

In a two-year investigation of GMO seed-corn production, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found repeated allegations of labor violations over the past decade against Monsanto, its counterpart DuPont Pioneer, other seed companies and the companies’ contractors.

The investigation found that:

  • Monsanto approved the hiring of three contractors after the contractors had previously triggered labor complaints—including one who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit involuntary servitude, spending nearly three years in federal prison
  • Legal Aid lawyers claim that seed-corn companies Monsanto and Pioneer have not accepted liability for all their contractors’ actions—and have not explicitly acknowledged a 2007 appeals court ruling holding them responsible for the actions of contractors who recruit and supervise workers.  Because Congress has prevented legal aid clinics from filing class-action suits since the mid-1990s, the companies typically pay out only $500 to $2,500 per worker in individual settlements.
  • The Department of Labor has fined seed-corn companies only tens or hundreds of dollars per worker  For example, Monsanto was fined only $850 for violations in the cornfields in the past decade.

The end result was a carefully crafted, solid story that - for the first time - exhaustively highlighted the underground system that abuses migrant workers.

Laird Townsend, an award-winning editor and freelance reporter whose work has appeared in major national newspapers and magazines, is the director of Project Word, a fiscally sponsored project of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). Project Word administers the Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors program (FIRE), which provides unaffiliated reporters with stipends and reporting services.

This story was reported with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with support from the H.D. Lloyd Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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