The federal employment laws meant to provide protection for agricultural workers need more enforcement in order to improve the conditions in our fields, according to a new report released today.
The report by Farmworker Justice analyzes the Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) statistics on its enforcement of the minimum wage and other basic labor protections applicable to agricultural workers on farms, ranches, and dairies. Widespread violations of the minimum wage and other wage-hour laws in agriculture harm farmworkers, as well as the many law-abiding businesses suffering competitive disadvantage caused by unscrupulous employers.
In “U.S. Department of Labor Enforcement in Agriculture: More Must Be Done to Protect Farmworkers,” a report based on reviewing 8 years of agency data under two presidents, Farmworker Justice found a mixed record. The number of investigations of agricultural workplaces conducted by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division remained fairly consistent despite the hiring of additional investigators and a stated commitment to improving compliance on farms. The data revealed increases in the amount of time spent by agency investigators on agricultural workplaces, increases in the number of farmworkers at investigated employers, as well as increases in the amounts of backpay assessed for violations.
“Consumers of fruits and vegetables want to know that farmworkers in the field are treated decently, and law-abiding growers do not want to be undermined by businesses that violate wage-hour laws, but the reality is that there are widespread violations in agriculture. The U.S. Department of Labor plays an important role in deterring and remedying violations of law. The agency has modestly improved the quantity and quality of its enforcement of labor-protective laws, but many employers still view the risk and the financial consequences of getting caught as too small to deter them from violating the law,” said Bruce Goldstein, President of Farmworker Justice, a national advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
The report’s recommendations include:
• Increase the number of investigations per year and ensure that the Department seeks and collects the full measure of back pay, liquidated damages and civil money penalties.
• Continue increasing the Department’s use of important tools in the law, including the authority to ask a federal court to issue a “hot goods injunction” against the sale of goods produced in violation of the minimum wage. It also should continue increasing its use of the “joint employer” concept when farm operators deny that they “employ” any farmworkers on their farm and seek to impose sole responsibility for minimum-wage violations on farm labor contractors.
• Continue to improve collaboration with farmworker groups on the ground. DOL also should improve its education of the public and Congress about the value of its enforcement efforts on farms.
“The bottom line is that because many farmworkers are suffering systematic violations of basic labor standards, Congress should increase funding for enforcement of the wage-hour laws in agriculture. In addition, the Department of Labor should continue to allocate more investigator time to agriculture and continue to increase its use of all the tools that Congress provided to the agency to remedy and deter violations of employment laws,” added Goldstein.
Most people who assist migrant farmworkers agree with David Winkles of the Farm Bureau that Congress should reform the immigration laws (April 20, “S.C. agriculture needs immigration reform”). But we disagree with the specifics in his op-ed.
The current agricultural guest worker program has worked all too well for growers seeking foreign citizens on H-2A visas. The modest labor protections should be stronger, as should their enforcement, to stop displacement of U.S. workers, undermining of wages and abuses of guest workers.
More importantly, Congress should grant a path to immigration status and citizenship to the many experienced farmworkers who are undocumented immigrants.
We couldn’t disagree more with the contention that the Bracero program was “one of the most successful programs of all times” (“Bring on the Guest Workers” by William McGurn, Main Street, March 24). The Bracero program, which began during World War II to provide foreign labor to U.S. farms, ended in 1964 after years of exposés about its labor- and human-rights abuses. While Mexican citizens often were grateful for the job opportunities, the Bracero program exploited the workers’ vulnerability. The guest workers held a restricted, nonimmigrant status with no right to earn immigration status or citizenship. They were tied to particular employers and depended on the employer for the chance for a visa in a following season. Wages stagnated and U.S. citizens and immigrants were displaced in favor of the more controllable foreign workers. While protections against undermining of U.S. workers’ wages and working conditions existed, they weren’t strong enough and they weren’t enforced effectively.
More important, we already have an agricultural guest-worker program and its history reveals that it should not be a model for this nation’s immigration policy. The H-2A temporary foreign agricultural-worker program also began during World War II and has been revised several times, but the program suffers from the same flaws as the Bracero program. The U.S. should not become a nation of guest workers but instead should remain a nation of immigrants who are granted the opportunity to become citizens and enjoy our economic and political freedoms.
Tomorrow marks the date that the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program (DAPA) was supposed to begin. On this day, the parents of U.S. citizen and lawful permanent resident children should have been able to come forward to apply for temporary protection from deportation and work authorization.
Unfortunately, President Obama’s DAPA and expanded DACA programs remain enjoined by a Texas federal district court order. We are still awaiting a decision on the Obama Administration’s expedited request to stay the injunction, which was argued on April 17. The Administration is also appealing the injunction via normal procedure, and the briefing of the legal issues is ongoing, with oral arguments tentatively scheduled for early July. Last week, more than 100 Republican members of Congress submitted an amicus brief supporting Texas and urging the 5th Circuit to uphold the district court’s injunction, arguing that the President exceeded his authority by creating the new DAPA and expanded DACA program. NILC has prepared an overview of the legal scenarios in the Texas v US case which provides some additional detail about possible outcomes at this point.
To honor this day and to send a clear message of support for DAPA and expanded DACA, groups from around the country will engage in actions tomorrow. For more information about events in your area, please click here.
One final issue that has arisen as a result of the district court’s injunction relates to work permits issued under the 2012 DACA program. Under President Obama’s November 2014 immigration actions, DACA work permits were to be extended from 2 to 3 years. As part of the injunction, however, DHS was enjoined from issuing 3-year work permits. Because some 2,000 3-year work permits were issued after the injunction, DHS is now in the process of replacing those 3-year work-permits with 2-year ones. This may be causing some confusion in the community, so please let us know if you hear of any concerns or other experiences.
In other news, the House anti-immigrant members have acted yet again, this time voting 221-202 in support of an amendment by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) that struck a provision in the defense authorization bill encouraging the Secretary of Defense to allow DACA individuals to enlist in the armed forces. The provision had been offered by Rep. Gallego (D-AZ) and added to the defense authorization bill during the committee markup.
One interesting development for farmworkers is taking place in our neighbor Mexico. After weeks of strikes and unrest, the Mexican government reportedly has agreed to subsidize farmworkers’ wages in the state of Baja California. Farmworkers are demanding a minimum daily wage of $13. Details of the agreement are yet to be reached, including the grower and government distribution of the wage increase. Much of the produce—strawberries, tomatoes, and other vegetables—is exported to the US where consumers may pay close to a Mexican worker’s full day of wages for just one pack of strawberries.
Finally, as we mentioned in our previous update, the DOL is engaging in long overdue rulemaking for H-2A sheepherders and other range livestock workers. An overview of the proposal is attached. We will circulate sign-on comments shortly.
On November 20th, 2014 President Obama announced his plans for executive action on immigration. We applaud the President’s action, which includes a deferred action program that provides relief from deportation and work authorization for millions of undocumented individuals, including hundreds of thousands of farmworkers and their family members.
Immigration is a critically important issue for farmworkers. Learn about current legislation proposals impacting farmworkers.
Learn about the history of guestworker programs, H-2A program for temporary agricultural work, and the H-2B visa program.