Farmworkers in the News: July 9-12

Progress for farmworkers in California– Congratulations to the UFW and the 200 Gargulio, Inc. tomato workers who voted to join the union last Wednesday, despite threats and intimidation by company officials.  This victory came a couple of months after approximately 800 UFW workers signed their first union contract with tomato grower, Pacific Triple E, bringing them wage increases from 12% – 57%.

Concerned with rising summer temperatures, the California State Assembly passed the Farmworker Safety Act that would require increased safety measures in the fields to prevent heat related deaths and other illnesses.  Hopefully, when the CA Senate returns from recess it will do the same.

The Department of Labor announces a major enforcement action against a large grower

Also in the news this week, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced that 1,365 H-2A guestworkers will receive $2.3 million in back wages from their former employer Peri & Sons Farms, a Nevada onion grower.  DOL also fined the company $500,000, the second largest penalty any company has received from the Wage and Hour Division.  Cases like this one point to the importance of DOL’s regulation and oversight of the H-2A program.

Labor shortages: an ongoing theme

It’s hard to go a week without at least one piece on labor shortages and although not as numerous as last week, there was one blog calling for a new farmworker visa due to the alleged labor shortages for California vineries. The blog makes clear that labor shortages are a self-created problem resulting from growers’ failure to pay adequate wages to attract workers and seems to support farmworkers’ using this limited bargaining power to eke out slightly higher wages, although then goes on to say the consumers will pay for this with higher prices. Actually, a study by Phil Martin, an agricultural economics professor at UC Davis, shows that increasing farmworker wages by 40% will only raise average US household spending by about $16 per year.  Further complexities on the labor issue are explained by Phil Martin in this piece, where he notes that “[i]t is very hard to evaluate grower claims of labor shortage because the "need" for farm workers depends more on wages and prices than on nature. Farmers routinely do not harvest all of their fruits and vegetables because of low prices or low yields…”  Prof Martin also points out that economic incentives lead to a situation in which “farmers requesting too many workers too soon and contractors promising too many workers too soon, practically guarantee labor shortage complaints from employers and unemployment for workers.” Finally, Prof. Martin notes that despite many claims of labor shortages in California, “[w]hen pressed, most farmers and their spokespersons could not point to specific instances of California crops that were not harvested for lack of labor.” One grower even stated their labor contractors were “able to supply the workforce in our area very comfortably without any hiccups or any issues.”  So all of these alarms about labor shortages are not what they seem and certainly don’t make the case for a new guestworker program. Instead, Congress should move forward to grant current experienced undocumented workers an opportunity to earn legal status.

Multiple farmworker work-related deaths

A Washington media outlet reported that three farmworkers have been killed by machinery in the last two weeks, underscoring the dangerous nature of farm work and the need for improved safety protections (farmworkers are excluded from many OSHA protections).

The H-2B nonagricultural guestworker program

The National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) has received a lot of media attention for its successful campaign against C.J.’s Seafood, a Louisiana-based company.  Wal-Mart, C.J.’s largest buyer, has suspended the supplier after several of C.J.’s crawfish processors went on strike to protest their deplorable working conditions and illegally low wages.  The workers, who came to the US from Mexico on H-2B guestworker visas, were forced to work up to 24 hour shifts, were sometimes locked in the factory and were threatened with deportation if they did not comply with employer demands.

Unfortunately, the abuses experienced by the C.J.’s Seafood H-2B workers are not unique.  Yet corporate business-interest lawsuits and lobbying have prevented DOL from putting into place the modest protections it promulgated for the H-2B program.  H-2B employers have successfully lobbied Congress to delay the implementation of DOL’s H-2B wage rule by one year (the rule merely requires employers to pay H-2B workers a prevailing wage to prevent undercutting of US workers’ wages and jobs) and are now moving forward to block both the wage rule and a broader H-2B worker protection rule for another.