SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal judge heard Tuesday from five children and teenagers who say they were pulled out of class to work long hours picking pecans at a Utah ranch while they were growing up in a polygamous group.
The testimony in Salt Lake City came after labor lawyers asked a judge to hold in contempt a company accused of using used 1,400 unpaid laborers, including 175 children, during a 2012 pecan harvest taped by TV news cameras.
The U.S. Department of Labor is also seeking back wages against Paragon Contractors.
U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell is expected to hear another day of evidence in the case. No deadline has been set for her decision.
A total of six brothers and sisters ranging from age 9 to age 18 said Tuesday they participated in the annual pecan harvest in Hurricane, about 300 miles south of Salt Lake City. They said they worked when they were as young as 6 and were exposed to cold rain, barred from resting in nearby vans and given little food some days. The Associated Press is not naming them because they are considered victims in the case.
Federal attorneys say Paragon Contractors has deep connections to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and broke a previous 2007 order against using child labor.
The company denies wrongdoing. They say the women and children volunteered to collect fallen nuts and kept some for their own use. Paragon has also submitted documents from people who say they chose to work in the fields to help build up food supplies for the needy, and their children looked forward to the outing after they finished their school work.
The harvest manager, not company leaders, made the arrangement with the families, who were allowed to keep half of what they gathered, Paragon attorneys say.
Farm work is generally exempt from child labor laws in Utah as long as it's done outside school hours. Paragon says the 2012 pecan harvest can't be considered a school day because children in the sect are homeschooled and minors were with their parents.
Federal attorneys disagree. They say it doesn't matter whether the children were taught at home; they still shouldn't have been working during public school hours.
Paragon and several members of the polygamous group have already been fined a total of $1.9 million after a labor investigation found sect leaders directed the harvest.
Authorities say those leaders are loyal to Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted in 2011 of sexually assaulting girls he considered brides.
The sect, a radical offshoot of Mormonism, does not have a spokesman or a phone listing where leaders can be contacted.
The hearing comes as federal prosecutors also sue members of the FLDS in Phoenix. They contend two towns on the Arizona-Utah line that are dominated by the FLDS church have discriminated against nonmembers and are serving as an enforcement arm of the sect.
The towns deny the allegations and say religion isn't a motivating factor in their decisions.
Sect members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. It is a legacy of the early teachings of the Mormon church, but the mainstream faith abandoned the practice more than century ago.