Farmworkers in the News : Media Roundup May 14-18

Farmworker coverage in the media was strong last week, with many of the articles highlighting the need for immigration reform for farmworkers and stronger enforcement of workplace laws protecting farmworkers.

The H-2A guestworker program continues to be the subject of frequent news coverage.  Much of the media focuses on grower complaints about the H-2A program.  As part of a legislative campaign for a new or revised worker program that removes government oversight and strips out worker protections, some agricultural employers are criticizing the H-2A program as too burdensome and bureaucratic.  According to a recent article in the LA Times, Howard Buffett, Warren Buffett’s son, is interested in immigration as it impacts agriculture and “has been paying for ‘advertorials’ in which farmers discuss labor- and immigration-related challenges.”

The week’s coverage of the H-2A program includes a Washington Post small business blog Op-Ed calling for a streamlined agricultural worker program and criticizing the current system. Farmworker Justice’s response calls for legalization of the current undocumented farm labor force and explains the need for protections in the H-2A program.

Coverage of a recent complaint filed by FJ and Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan demonstrates the need for worker protections in the H-2A program, including recruitment protections for US workers.  The complaint questions the legality of participation in the H-2A program by a hydroponics facility in Michigan and alleges that the facility fired and/or laid-off US workers in anticipation of bringing in H-2A guestworkers.

Last week’s media also addressed the many abuses farmworkers face in the workplace.   In particular, these articles and a Tampa Bay Times editorial highlight the role that farm labor contractors and undocumented status play in workplace abuses.

Several news stories, including this one in the Tampa Bay Times, discuss a recent human trafficking case brought by Farmworker Justice and Florida Legal Services against Bulls-Hit Ranch & Farm, a potato grower in Hastings, Florida and its farm labor contractor.  This case exemplifies an egregious form of abuse where farm labor contractors (FLCs) recruit homeless people to work in the fields and keep them in perpetual debt by selling drugs and alcohol and offering them loans at 100% interest. FLCs are notorious for workplace labor law violations and such violations will likely continue unless farmers are held responsible for abuses on their farms, as this lawsuit seeks to do.  More and more employers rely on farm labor contractors to try to shield themselves from liability for their workforce, a trend that increased with the advent of immigration enforcement in the workplace, and will likely increase even more with increased immigration enforcement, such as a possible mandatory E-Verify bill.

Also receiving a lot of media coverage last week is Human Rights Watch’s newly released report, Cultivating Fear: The Vulnerability of Immigrant Farmworkers in the US to Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment.  The report calls for legalization of undocumented farmworkers and notes that the undocumented and guestworker status of many farmworkers impacts their ability to report sexual violence and harassment, among other workplace place violations.  The report noted that women who work for FLCs are more vulnerable to sexual harassment than those who work directly for the employer.