Our Stories

Giving Workers a Voice

It seemed like a simple request. Workers at a north Portland Fresh Del Monte Produce plant asked for safety gloves to protect their hands as they washed and sliced fruits and vegetables.

But when eight Hispanic women were fired at the plant allegedly in retaliation for making this request -- and asking for time off for New Year's Eve -- they didn't just stay silent. They filed a class action lawsuit against Fresh Del Monte and its employment firm. The company denied wrongdoing when it settled the case for $400,000, at the time the largest class action settlement for agricultural workers ever in Oregon.

When Keith Cunningham-Parmeter first took the case as lead attorney, it seemed clear to him that his clients' workplace rights had been violated. Most of those working at the plant are immigrants. "This was a group of eight very courageous women who spoke up when almost every other person in their situation would stay silent," he says. "They were experiencing the sort of abuse that people from their community now accept as commonplace, as part of being an immigrant working in the United States."

Cunningham-Parmeter, now an assistant professor at Willamette's College of Law, has spent much of his career providing legal counsel to agricultural workers like those at the Fresh Del Monte plant. He realizes that these cases become more and more contentious as the public debate rages over illegal immigration. But he is adamant that regardless of whether a worker is in the country legally, the law still protects that person's basic rights.

In June, the same plant was subject to an immigration raid that resulted in the arrest and detention of 167 workers suspected of being in the country illegally. But after the raid, it also was revealed that the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division had opened two separate investigations into safety practices at the plant. During the lawsuit, Cunningham-Parmeter facilitated a separate investigation that resulted in the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries finding substantial evidence to support the workers' allegations they had been fired for making safety complaints.

"I really believe that no matter what side of the immigration debate you're on, most people would agree that if you work for eight hours, you should be paid for eight hours. In representing farmworkers, I sought to protect basic human rights -- the right to be paid your wages, the right to be free of sexual harassment, the right to have a safe workplace. Whether you're documented or not, the law says you have those protections."

Cunningham-Parmeter grew up around migrant agricultural workers in his Bay Area hometown of Gilroy, Calif., which calls itself the "Garlic Capital of the World." His family lived comfortably, but he saw the struggles of many Hispanic immigrants around him. "I realize that simply by being born white and middle class in the United States, I obtained instant privilege, and it doesn't take much to see that not everyone was born with that privilege. My work is my way of giving back."

After getting his bachelor's degree in English from the University of Oregon, he spent two years in the Mississippi Delta through Teach For America, teaching middle school in one of the 10 poorest counties in the country. Then it was on to Stanford University for a law degree, where one summer job had him representing female lettuce packers who had been passed over for promotions.

But his love for the Northwest eventually drew him back to Oregon. Cunningham-Parmeter earned a two-year fellowship from Skadden Arps, one of the country's largest law firms, allowing him to provide legal services to migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Oregon. He worked with the Oregon Law Center, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to low-income clients.

Oregon has the sixth-largest migrant farmworker population in the country. Workers come to the state in the spring and summer to harvest various crops, including berries, hops and pears.

The Fresh Del Monte case was one of many Cunningham-Parmeter took on during his fellowship. He relied on the help of outreach workers, often former farmworkers, as he tried to gain connections within the migrant communities in Woodburn, Portland and the Columbia River Gorge.

"Building relationships with your clients doesn't happen overnight," he says. "It often involved frequent visits to homes and labor camps. My clients were understandably skeptical of this outsider coming in and saying he was going to right all the wrongs."

Much of his time was spent meeting workers and informing them that they had basic protections under the law, regardless of their immigration status. He would leave his business card behind -- and sometimes workers called him to report possible violations.

Besides complaints of not being properly paid, workers also were concerned about unsanitary living or working conditions on farms -- including lack of bathrooms and drinking water -- and about improper exposure to pesticides. The law requires employers to provide these workers with pesticide safety training, but Cunningham-Parmeter says there often was no training, or it was done in a language the workers could not understand.

"Whenever I would think I was having a tough day, I would think about my clients living in ramshackle labor camps or suffering sexual harassment," he says. "My life seemed like a cakewalk."

Cunningham-Parmeter joined the Willamette faculty a year ago because he wanted to continue with a profession he fell in love with while serving through Teach For America. Now he shares his extensive knowledge of labor law and employment discrimination with his students. But he won't forget about the workers who need a voice; he hopes to continue helping them through his scholarship and outreach work.

His continued passion goes back to his deep-seated need to give to those who don't have the same privileges he has. And it's also a part of his spiritual side as a Catholic. "I believe in service," he says. "I'm here to do more than just survive. If I have the means and talents to help others, then I should."