Farmworkers in the News
In early August, the Partnership for a New American Economy launched a media blitz, releasing reports for each state and the District of Columbia highlighting the positive economic impact of immigrants. The group, convened by former New York City Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, supports legislation to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants but also emphasizes guestworker programs. The partnership is a coalition of Republican, Democratic and Independent mayors and business groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, Western Growers Association, and United Fresh Produce Association.
The reports provide valuable state-level data on the growing immigrant populations, which industries have predominantly immigrant workers, the tax contributions of immigrants and the numbers of immigrant-run and first-generation American run businesses. We generally applaud these efforts but note that the reports only provide the business perspective on immigration.
For example, the reports praise our country for being a nation of immigrants and highlight that immigrants and their children start businesses, often in higher percentages than the general population. However, many of the persons profiled in the reports also call for a “workable” guestworker program for agriculture. But a guestworker program is not an immigration program, in that it requires participants to maintain permanent residence in their countries of origin and generally does not allow them to bring their families. Workers are tied to one industry, typically to a single employer, and lack the freedom and opportunity that true immigrants with lawful permanent residence have. Guestworkers usually have no path to a green card. By design these temporary visa workers and their children will not become American entrepreneurs, homeowners, members of their communities or voters. They are also less able to advocate for better workplaces or join labor unions due to their temporary, non-immigrant status.
Our opposition to guestworker programs is based on our extensive experience assisting workers under the H-2A program and its predecessor and our knowledge of the legacy of the Bracero program and parallel programs in the U.S. and elsewhere. These programs uniformly expose the same flaws, including exploitation of guestworkers’ vulnerability and negative impacts on the wages and working conditions of domestic farmworkers.
Farmworker Justice wholeheartedly agrees that a path to immigration status and citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country would benefit our economy, our communities and all workers. Immigration reform should provide an opportunity for all farmworkers, regardless of their immigration status, to improve their wages and working conditions. Any future visa program for farmworkers should provide workers with lawful permanent residence status and the opportunity to become citizens. In addition to providing solutions to employers’ legitimate needs for an adequate, productive workforce, such programs should incorporate fundamental principles of fairness, economic freedom, and democracy and keep families together.
The reports generated much local media (see, for example, these pieces from the San Antonio Express-News and Bismarck Tribune) and Farmworker Justice responded to the calls for guestworker programs in a few of the articles. You can read Farmworker Justice’s Letter to the Editor in Maine’s Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel here.
Slate Article on Wage Theft in Agriculture & Hot Goods Injunctions
Gabriel Thompson wrote an in-depth piece for Slate on wage theft and other labor violations in agriculture, and the Department of Labor’s enforcement tool known as a “hot goods injunction.” Entitled, “Good Crop, Bad Crop,” the subtitle said the U.S. government is “barely using a law designed to stop” wage theft. This provision allows the DOL – after finding wage or child labor violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act – to request a federal court injunction to prevent the products from being shipped or sold. The rationale of Congress in drafting this section of the FLSA in 1938 was that goods produced in violation of the wage laws would “taint” the channels of interstate commerce and undermine above-board law-abiding employers. It is a powerful tool that Farmworker Justice has called on DOL to use more frequently. If the court grants the injunction, the obstacle to business often will persuade the parties to resolve the case promptly so that the cheated workers receive their pay. If an employer can draw out the process of a DOL investigation, it can be difficult tracking down workers to deliver their lost wages. Additionally, if DOL can resolve cases promptly, it can help more workers with its limited resources: over a four-year stretch, DOL was only able to investigate 1% of the nation’s farms.
The article notes that in the late 1980s, the DOL was very effective at using this provision of the law to strategically reform sweatshops in greater Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, many agricultural employers seem to feel that they can break the law with impunity. Numerous surveys of farmworkers find that a majority have experienced some form of wage theft and between 2010 and 2013, nearly 70 percent of DOL inspections found labor law violations. Thompson attributes this, in part, to the fact that the hot goods provision was utilized just 22 times in the last decade. This reluctance may stem from strong pushback that DOL received from growers and some Democratic and Republican politicians after it obtained large wage settlements after threatening to seek hot goods injunctions against a few Oregon berry growers in 2012. The growers successfully sued the DOL to cancel the settlements, claiming that they were forced to settle under “economic duress,” and the case was abandoned by DOL who could no longer locate all of the farmworkers who worked there, many of whom were migrants.
Farmworker Justice President Bruce Goldstein was quoted in the piece, saying that “there is just rampant illegality in agriculture and workers usually feel that it isn’t worth challenging the violations, or speaking up, because of the risk of being retaliated against.” We encourage you to read the entire article and we urge DOL to increase its use of the powerful hot goods injunctions in agriculture.
Guilty Verdict and Pleas in Federal Case Over H-2A Kickback Scheme
Farmworker Justice is pleased that the Departments of Justice, Labor, State and Homeland Security collaborated in the investigation and successful criminal prosecution of Sandra Lee Bart for visa fraud in the H-2A temporary agricultural guestworker program. Bart was found guilty in a conspiracy to extract illegal kickbacks from H-2A guestworkers after she and a partner set up a company that was able to use the H-2A program to access workers from the Dominican Republic. They then found growers that were willing to use their services as a labor contractor. At least one of the growers claims to have not known the full extent of the scheme – whereby workers had to cover their own travel costs and even reimburse the grower when the H-2A wage rate increased. Nonetheless, the grower pled guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud.
The protections in the H-2A program are in place to prevent this kind of egregious abuse of guestworkers, but require aggressive enforcement. This case further shows the need for more resources so that DOL can investigate potential H-2A violations.
DOL Requests Preliminary Injunction Against Grower Over Transportation Safety
The Department of Labor is seeking to hold a California grower, Valley Garlic, responsible for its farm labor contractor's failure to legally and safely transport farmworkers, which resulted in a tragic crash and the death of four farmworkers. The lawsuit filed by DOL states that the labor contractor is required by the contract between the parties to transport the farmworkers in compliance with federal and state law, but the labor contractor failed to do so. Even now, said DOL, Valley Garlic has taken no steps to ensure that the farmworkers are safely transported. The Department has requested that a federal court issue a preliminary injunction, ordering Valley Garlic to ensure that its farmworkers are transported safely. We applaud DOL's efforts to hold the grower jointly responsible for transporting farmworkers along with the labor contractor as the grower is in the best position to control the working arrangements and conditions on the farm.
Heat Stress Risk to Farmworkers: Solutions
Modern Farmer re-posted an article from last summer that discussed heat stress and farmworkers. Already one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, every summer farmworkers face the added danger of triple-digit temperatures. Almost every year farmworkers die from preventable heat-related illness. It is critically important that farmworkers be offered water, rest, and shade when temperatures rise.
Unfortunately, only California and Washington have regulations requiring that shade be provided to workers. Furthermore, many farmworkers who are paid piece-rate wages feel pressure to harvest as much as possible to maximize their earnings and not take breaks, as they rarely receive paid breaks. OSHA launched an annual awareness campaign about heat stress for outdoor workers beginning in 2011, but ultimately regulations on shade and breaks are necessary to complement OSHA Field Sanitation, which requires cool, potable drinking water. Farmworker Justice and allies will continue to press OSHA to improve its safety standard. We appreciate the article in Modern Farmer.