Farmworkers in the News- August 13, 2012

More on Growers’ Allegations of Labor Shortages –Many news stories in the last few weeks have reported on growers’ fears of labor shortages and  an array of possible causes, including immigration enforcement and growers’ unwillingness to pay sufficient wages to attract workers.  In Georgia, an editorial on labor shortages blamed the passage of Georgia’s anti-immigrant law for what growers claim was a 40 percent labor shortage in seven key crops in 2011. A similar Ohio story attributed an estimated 9 % drop in the state’s migrant workforce to increased immigration enforcement.

In NY, apple growers are worried that word of a small harvest has spread, which may deter some migrant farmworkers from coming north if they can make more money elsewhere. A Michigan article similarly explains that pockets of oversupply and shortages occur due to difficulties in predicting labor needs and when crops will be ready for picking, as well as communicating employers’ needs to migrant workers in time for them to travel to the locations of the crops.

In CA the media ran more balanced pieces, noting that farmworker wages have yet to rise, which would be a sign of a tightening labor market.  A couple of articles on purported labor shortages in CA peach orchards indicated that local residents were willing to work, but growers either didn’t seem to want them or they didn’t want to pay them enough.  After CA peach farmers reported a labor shortage that threatened to spoil their harvest, there was an outpouring of local support.  Both unemployed local workers and workers willing to pick as a second job contacted the news outlet and farmers to offer their services. For unexplained reasons it appeared that many interested people were unable to secure employment.  One person who was offered a job realized that he would not be able to make enough to cover his gas.  In addition to the run-of-the mill NC articles expressing fears of a potential labor shortage, an article in Western NC covered a forum organized by the League of Women Voters, which focused on protecting the existing local farm labor force.  Growers and a local sheriff discussed the need for “comprehensive reform of the immigration laws” that threaten the undocumented farmworkers in their county.  The sheriff, whose office participates in the 287(g) program, assured the audience that law enforcement is targeting felons, not the law-abiding undocumented farmworkers, who all present agreed are a “good, hard-working, honest group of people.”

US Farmworkers’ (Yes, they exist) Jobs Still Need Protecting

In response to news of a feared labor shortage, one editorial admirably called for comprehensive immigration reform.  Unfortunately, the article used the grower argument that Americans won’t do farm work and even those who are hired quit because they can’t handle the work.  While there are certainly not enough US farmworkers (those with legal immigration status) to fill the estimated 2 million farm jobs, advocates of immigration reform should be careful not to belittle the 500,000 -700,000 US farmworkers who labor in the fields to bring food to our tables.

Discrimination against US farmworkers is a persistent problem because many growers prefer H-2A guestworkers and sometimes undocumented workers over US citizens and lawful permanent residents whom they recognize as more likely to enforce their rights.  Growers using the H-2A program often avoid hiring US workers, or upon hiring them, use tactics to encourage them to quit.  The claims of growers and their associations that Americans won’t do farm work are part of a campaign to get rid of requirements in the H-2A program that require them to recruit and hire US workers before being permitted to hire foreign guestworkers.  Proponents of a path to citizenship for farmworkers should not repeat grower arguments that disparage the many hard-working US farmworkers.

More News Attacking H-2A Program Worker Protections

An analyst at a policy organization that purports to promote free market capitalism, accused Obama of being anti-immigrant based on his administration’s increased protection of U.S. and foreign farmworkers in the H-2A agricultural guestworker program.  In criticizing the worker protections, the author fails to acknowledge that there is nothing “free-market” about guestworker programs, which create an artificial employer-labor relationship by denying workers the right to change employers, stripping them of any bargaining power that they would otherwise have over the terms of their employment.  H-2A workers are tied to their employer by their visas are subject to threats of deportation if they assert their rights.

Creating a new, even more exploitative guestworker program or slashing H-2A program wages and worker protections will not provide stability for either growers or workers and their families.  As FJ President, Bruce Goldstein wrote in his response to a McClatchy article, when a labor shortage occurs in any other industry, employers increase wages and improve working conditions to attract more workers.  However, in agriculture, many employers press for fewer regulations or a new guestworker program, in an attempt to artificially create an oversupply of labor, allowing them to lower wages and easily dispose of workers that assert their rights.  This would do nothing to address the current undocumented labor force.  If growers truly want a stable, legal workforce, they should urge Congress to create a roadmap to citizenship for our nation’s hard-working farmworkers who contribute to our economy and are committed to our country.

Consumer Advocacy for Worker Justice in the Food Supply Chain

Also in the news recently was a call to consumers to support sustainable conditions for workers in the food supply chain.  An article criticized some “foodies’” lack of interest in the wages and working conditions of the workers that pick, process, distribute, prepare and deliver their expensive, organic gourmet food.  It highlighted a recent report by the Food Chain Workers’ Alliance, The Hands That Feed Us, which surveyed workers in the food chain, including farmworkers, and found that none of the farmworkers surveyed were making a living wage and 54.2% of them were paid below minimum wage.  The report also found that farmworkers experience high incidences of exposure to toxic chemicals and wage theft and that the use of child labor in agriculture was over double that of the jobs surveyed.  The report expresses the need to include sustainable wages and working conditions for food workers within the definition of sustainable food.

Good News

DOL’s Wage and Hour Division announced that Jimenez Custom Harvesting Inc. in Clovis, NM will pay $66,979 in back wages and $35,625 in civil penalties for violations of the H-2A Program and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Maine doesn’t appear to lack sufficient workers to harvest its large blueberry crop this year.  The media has been covering the services available to migrant farmworkers.  The Eastern Maine Development Corporation successfully connects migrant farmworkers with growers, assisting with transportation and housing issues as needed.  The organization collaborates with the state workforce agency, Pine Tree Legal Services, educational and migrant health care organizations to ensure that workers connect with the services they need. Other articles highlighted migrant health services for farmworkers in Maine.