Farmworkers in the U.S.

Remembering Farmworkers This Labor Day

When it comes to farm labor, immigration policy is labor policy.  So this Labor Day, let’s hope that our collective advocacy persuades the President to create a generous program that helps many farmworker families. President Obama plans to grant some undocumented immigrants temporary relief from deportation and authorization to work.  Unfortunately, whatever the President does won’t be enough.  Only Congress can change the law.
 
Most of the nation’s 2.5 million farmworkers – at least 1.25 million and possibly 1.75 million -- are undocumented.
 
We as a nation permitted this to happen.  A broken immigration system allowed employers to hire new immigrants and deprived these productive workers of  immigration status.  Such vulnerable workers, especially absent a union, cannot negotiate  for job terms as forcefully as U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
 
“We have long waivered and compromised on the issue of migratory labor in agriculture.  We have failed to adopt policies designed to insure an adequate supply of such labor at decent standards of employment.  . . . We have used the institutions of government to procure alien labor willing to work under obsolete and backward conditions and thus to perpetuate those very conditions.”  Report of the President’s Commission on Migratory Labor (1951), p.23
 

The President should offer administrative relief.  And then Congress should offer a true legal immigration status and opportunity to earn citizenship  But that is not enough.
 
“Shall we continue indefinitely to have low work standards and conditions of employment in agriculture, thus depending on the underprivileged and the unfortunate at home and abroad to supply and replenish our seasonal and migratory work force?  Or shall we do in agriculture what we have already done in other sectors of our economy – create honest-to-goodness jobs which will offer a decent living so that domestic workers, without being forced by dire necessity, will be willing to stay in agriculture and become a dependable labor supply?”  Id.
 
We must empower farmworkers to bargain for better wages and conditions.  A starting point would be to end to discriminatory employment laws that deprive farmworkers of occupational safety protections, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, overtime pay, and other labor standards that apply to other workers.  Most important, we must help farmworkers organize to demand and win better treatment by their employers.
 
Some agricultural employers demand a new agricultural guestworker program.  They prefer guestworkers on restricted temporary visas compared to immigrants and citizens, who may have the freedom to switch employers, challenge illegal conduct, join a labor union, and vote in elections that lead to policy changes. We already have the H-2A guestworker program.  Many don’t want to use it because it has modest labor protections and government oversight. There is also a recent history of successful union organizing of H-2A guestworkers in North Carolina’s tobacco farms.
 
President Obama should issue a policy that allows the largest possible number of farmworkers and their family members to obtain immigration status and work authorization.  Then Congress should act to grant access to a true immigration status leading to citizenship.  Our challenge at Farmworker Justice is to help farmworkers gain access to any new program and help them organize to win a greater measure of justice in the fields and in their communities.


 

Farmworker Justice Immigration Update 8/22/14

President Obama is expected to announce his plans regarding immigration policy in the coming weeks upon completion of a review by agency officials.

However, some Democratic Senate candidates prefer that he wait to take administrative action on immigration until after the November elections. Senate Democratic leadership has not taken a position on the timing of the President’s announcement, saying that it is up to the President.

Some advocates predict that the President will create an affirmative relief program for millions of undocumented immigrants who are not a priority for deportation. These individuals would apply, undergo a background check and receive protection from deportation and work authorization for a temporary period of time. The program’s criteria could be similar to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Applicants could be required to demonstrate residence in the U.S. for a certain number of years in the U.S. There could also be application criteria based on relationship to family members who have immigration or citizenship status in the U.S.

There have been some who question the President’s authority to create a broad affirmative relief program. However, many legal scholars and immigration experts have argued that the President has ample legal authority to create a broad affirmative relief program. Such a program will improve the administration’s execution of the law and use of enforcement resources to apprehend serious criminals, such as human traffickers and members of drug cartels, and focus on securing the border. The President’s authority is explained in NILC’s factsheet available here.

Farmworker Justice is part of a group of labor unions and immigrants’ advocates urging the Administration to provide greater protections for immigrant workers in labor disputes. Currently, undocumented workers who win a case for being fired for joining a labor union or filing a complaint for sexual harassment cannot obtain reinstatement to their job; for this reason many workers will not take such risks. Such workers should be eligible for a temporary stay of deportation and work authorization. Similarly, workers on temporary visas have little recourse to enforce their labor rights because their visas often expire before the case is adjudicated and they are forced to return home. Worse still, some employers contact immigration authorities to have workers deported if they join a union organizing drive or challenge illegal job practices. Such retaliation has a profound chilling effect on other workers experiencing rights violations. Granting deferred action to workers exercising their civil and labor rights would send a strong message to bad-actor employers that they can no longer use the immigration system to exploit workers. The New York Times Editorial on this issue is available here.

Business groups including growers’ associations have also been meeting with Obama Administration officials to discuss their priorities for administrative relief. High tech groups are requesting that the Administration make some changes to the high-skilled visa system such as the way that the yearly caps on greencards are counted.

Despite the fact that over half of the farm labor force is undocumented, there does not appear to be a strong unified push by agribusiness groups for affirmative relief in the form of protection from deportation and work authorization for undocumented farmworkers. Some groups have asked for reduced immigration enforcement in agriculture. One growers’ association said that it is not pushing for aggressive executive action because its members do not want to anger Republicans and spoil the chances for legislative action.

Statements by some agricultural trade associations further indicate that many of them do not support affirmative administrative relief:

United Fresh Produce Association (representing shippers, processors and marketers) states: “there are unique considerations that agriculture has to deal with and so blanket initiatives may not be as helpful to agriculture as might be intended.”

AmericanHort (representing nurseries and greenhouses) states: “first “do no harm,” meaning, avoid measures that might accelerate the attrition of agricultural and seasonal workers at a time of worsening labor shortages.”

Some growers assume that farmworkers who receive work authorization will leave agriculture; therefore, the President should not grant them work authorization and they should remain working in agriculture with the threat of deportation hanging over their heads.

Farmworker Justice, the United Farm Workers and many others are encouraging the Administration to include farmworkers in any administrative relief program. It would be morally reprehensible, legally questionable and economically disastrous to exclude farmworkers. Farmworkers who are undocumented suffer in the form of low pay and poor conditions, and their lack of status should not be perpetuated. Moreover, agricultural employers should compete in the marketplace by improving wages, benefits and working conditions to retain workers.

In addition, it is not necessarily true that most farmworkers would leave agriculture upon obtaining relief. Many people make their careers doing farm work and some lack the education and language skills for other jobs. More than 20 years after the farmworker legalization program in the 1986 immigration reform, 2007-09 data show that 17% of foreign-born workers still performing agricultural work had been legalized by that program; many others would have aged out, died or were promoted to management.

Some growers associations are also asking the Obama Administration for changes to the H-2A agricultural guestworker program rules, but one noted that it is unlikely to be an Obama Administration priority. Farmworker Justice opposes any changes to the H-2A program rules that would lower wages or reduce worker protections for H-2A workers and domestic workers in corresponding employment. As explained in our H-2A report, No Way to Treat a Guest: Why the H-2A Program Fails US and Foreign Workers, despite the existing protections, H-2A workers are still subject to abuse. Growers have tried this before. In 2008, they convinced the outgoing Bush Administration to make changes to the H-2A program rules that lowered wages and reduced protections for workers. In 2009, the incoming Obama Administration reversed these changes.

In other news regarding the H-2A program, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO, has mounted an impressive campaign this summer to expand the number farmworkers under collective bargaining agreements at employers that use the H-2A program. FLOC has been pressing the big tobacco corporations to negotiate along with the growers to reach agreements for fair treatment of farmworkers.

Farmworker Justice continues to press the administration to create a broad, bold affirmative relief program that includes undocumented farmworkers and their families and protects workers.  

Worker Protection Standard Comment Period Ends Tonight: Tell the EPA to Protect Farmworkers

Today is the last day that the EPA will accept public comments on proposed revisions to the Worker Protection Standard (WPS) that provides the regulatory minimum for occupational pesticide exposure protection. Other workers who are exposed to toxic substances are covered by stronger protections, issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The result is that the men, women, and children who produce the nation’s food are less protected from workplace hazards than other workers.

Although the proposed changes to the WPS will not address all the challenges in the fields, they are a step in the right direction to prevent pesticide illness. If the final rule includes our recommended improvements, the results will include greater awareness by farmworkers of the risks they face and preventative measures; and fewer pesticide-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths among farmworkers and their family members.

The agricultural industry is working hard to dissuade the EPA from adopting the rules that benefit farmworkers the most. Today, Politico reported the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture submitted comments that “call on the EPA to scrap the proposed changes.”

Farmworker Justice and other farmworker advocates have provided the EPA with extensive information to justify stronger protections for farmworkers. Your voice is needed to make sure farmworker safety does not take a back seat to the interests of agribusiness and pesticide manufacturers.

Please join Farmworker Justice and urge the EPA to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure. You have until midnight tonight to submit comments.

Visit our website to use our model comments and submit by midnight tonight!
 

Farmworker Justice Update 8/1: Hot Goods Hearing

Democrats and Republicans rarely find common ground in Congress these days, but apparently attacking Department of Labor’s(DOL) efforts to protect our nation’s vulnerable farmworkers is one area in which they agree. On Wednesday, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture held a hearing titled “To review the impact of enforcement activities by the Department of Labor on specialty crop growers,” in which the DOL’s Wage and Hour Administrator David Weil and Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian testified.

Under the hot goods provisions, goods produced in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) minimum wage, overtime and child labor provisions are considered “hot goods” because they are tainted by the labor violations and pollute the channels of interstate commerce. The FLSA makes it illegal for anyone to transport, ship, deliver, or sell “hot goods” in interstate commerce. Section 17 of the FLSA authorizes the Department of Labor to seek a court order forbidding anyone from placing tainted goods into the stream of interstate commerce (a “hot goods order”). Hot goods orders are a powerful remedy against illegal practices that harm low-paid workers who cannot afford to wait to be paid properly. To read more about the hot goods provisions, see our fact sheet.

The Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture subcommittee is led by members from farming districts: Chairman Austin Scott (R-GA) and Ranking Member Kurt Schrader (D-OR). Both of these members seem to have a bullseye on farmworkers. Rep. Schrader has introduced two bills to limit farmworkers’ rights to healthcare and labor protections. Rep. Scott has also introduced legislation to defund the Legal Services Corporation just days after the legal services program in Georgia announced that it had assisted an EEOC determination that a Georgia grower in Scott’s district was discriminating against US workers in favor of H-2A agricultural guestworkers.

Rep. Schrader’s vendetta against DOL on behalf of “my” farmers was clear in the many, many, many questions he asked. Many of the questions were related to a 2012 case in which DOL invoked the hot goods provisions against 3 blueberry growers in Oregon for failure to pay the minimum wage to many workers and for violation of child labor laws. Although the cases settled, two of the growers sought to vacate the settlement agreements almost a year later by claiming that their due process rights had been violated and they had been coerced into accepting the settlements due to the threat of a hot goods injunction. A federal district judge overturned the settlement agreements and reopened the case. DOL has requested permission to appeal the decision; the case is still pending.

With the sole exception of Wage and Hour Administrator Weil, the hearing lacked any consideration of the farmworker perspective, including the extensive labor law violations in agriculture or the experiences of the farmworkers in the controversial Oregon cases. Instead, the underlying sympathies and assumptions seemed to be that contrary to widespread statistics, growers are not really violating the law, and thus, are the real victims. There were many questions about how the poor beleaguered farmers will recoup their attorneys’ fees, legal costs, etc.

Of course, not all agricultural employers break the law. In fact, the primary purpose of the hot goods provisions is to protect law-abiding employers from being competitively undermined by unscrupulous employers seeking unfair business advantage by unlawfully lowering their labor costs.

The hearing sent a clear message to the Obama Administration to curtail enforcement of the hot goods provision in agriculture. We urge the DOL to continue to enforce the FLSA hot goods provision to maximize its limited enforcement capabilities, to incentivize compliance with the law, and to ensure that all workers receive their fair day’s pay. Representatives Scott and Schrader have filed a bill, HR 1387, that would exclude perishable agricultural goods from the hot goods provisions of the FLSA. Congress should end the discrimination against farmworkers in our nation’s labor laws, not seek to expand the exclusions.
 

Reversing America’s Declining Health Trend Means Focusing in Equity

For the first time in decades, the current generation isn’t as healthy as the one that came before.” The theme for day five of National Public Health Week is “Be the Healthiest Nation in One Generation” and is dedicated to turning around the declining trend in health faced by Americans today. To address this trend, it’s important that we understand the barriers to good health faced by all people in the United States. At Farmworker Justice, we spend a lot of time contemplating migration as a social determinant of health. Specifically, we discuss the roadblocks that affect good health and quality of life and we think about ways to lift those roadblocks, either through advocating for policy change or through health promotion and education projects.

In terms of farmworkers, migration from their home to the U.S. has a lot to do with their health. Just a few factors related to migration that affect farmworkers include poverty, language, discrimination, and national policies.

Most farmworkers live at or below the poverty line. Health outcomes of people who live near the poverty line are worse than for those who enjoy higher incomes.
Eighty-one percent of farmworkers speak Spanish but immediately after arriving in the U.S. they need to navigate everything from grocery stores, public schools, housing, and health clinics almost entirely in English.
• Discrimination, both overt acts of discrimination and microagressions (every day, more subtle forms of discrimination), is associated with increased anxiety, anger, depression, and stress levels.
• Policy can be discriminatory when it is does not provide protections to workers equitably across professions. For example, many states do not require agricultural employers to provide workers’ compensation insurance coverage for farmworkers, even though agriculture is ranked among the most dangerous occupations by the U.S. Department of Labor.
• Policies that don’t seem to be about health, like immigration policy, can actually have a great impact on the health and wellbeing of our community members. For example, children who hear about deportations may constantly fear the separation of their families and people who cannot obtain driver’s licenses may avoid driving to a clinic.

Not only do poverty, language barriers, discrimination, and policy serve as enormous sources of stress, but they also stand in the way of accessing and receiving appropriate medical and mental health services. In addition, sixty-four percent of farmworkers are uninsured, so even when they do seek care, paying for it presents another barrier.

To reverse the decline in the nation’s health outcomes, it is important to address the barriers, social inequalities, and injustices that contribute to the decline. We must also recognize that the health of each individual is affected by the overall health of our communities so working toward better health outcomes for the entire community will create better health for each individual.
 

Farmworkers and our Food Safety System

The CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne illnesses. We’ve all seen the frightening consequences from fruits and vegetables contaminated with salmonella or listeria. Eating safe, healthy food, today's theme of National Public Health Week, is a basic building block of public health. While most conversations about this topic revolve around responding to outbreaks or creating more rigorous standards and surveillance by government agencies, few consider the important role of farmworkers in preventing foodborne illnesses.

Food safety advocates have long recognized that the working conditions and training of farmworkers can significantly affect food safety: overworked and underpaid farmworkers in the field are typically not encouraged to look out for safety concerns. If employers don't provide sanitary facilities, or fail to provide the necessary training or economic incentives to stop production when unsafe conditions exist, important opportunities to improve food safety are lost. 

Farmworker Justice is a co-founder of a unique collaboration between farmworker, environmental and consumer advocates, retailers, and farmers that aims to promote food safety and improve working conditions in the produce industry. The Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) has developed a set of food safety, labor, and pesticide standards and a training program to help farmworkers and farm owners and their managers work together to implement the standards. 

EFI's food safety standards recognize that farmworkers are often the first line of defense against contaminated food. Under the EFI system, workers receive training to recognize food safety risks and are encouraged to report unsafe conditions, improper practices or procedures in the field to their supervisor. It’s a common sense approach to food safety that benefits workers, growers, retailers and consumers: fresh fruits and vegetables grown and harvested in ways that respect workers can help reduce the potential for transmission of foodborne illness.
 

National Public Health Week: Getting Ahead with Preventative Health Care

Day three of National Public Health Week is entitled “Get Out Ahead!” and is dedicated to prevention as a national priority. Community and migrant health centers across the United States serve the preventative and primary health care needs of many of the farmworkers who plant, tend, and harvest the nation’s crops. Farmworkers and their families encounter numerous barriers to accessing health care such as cost, transportation, language, and lack of sick leave, to name a few. Outreach is a critical component of health care delivery to farmworker communities. I spent several years as a farmworker health outreach worker in rural North Carolina. This personal experience working in farmworker health in a small community provides insight to health problems faced by farmworkers and the barriers they regularly face when seeking health care.

Let’s first start with some quick farmworker health facts. Agricultural work is low paying, physically demanding work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked agriculture as the third most dangerous job in 2012. Many farmworker families live at or below the poverty level and approximately 64% are uninsured. Cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes are among the top five causes of death for Latinos in the U.S. For farmworkers, specifically, many of whom are Latino, a recent study showed an elevated prevalence of anemia and obesity and stunting in children of farmworker families. The burden of these conditions can be lessened or prevented under the regular care of a physician. Lack of insurance limits the options that farmworkers have when they seek health care and it is sometimes a barrier to receiving care at all. Many turn to community and migrant health centers to receive preventative care where they are able to pay for health care on a sliding-fee scale based on their income. Outreach workers are a valuable part of the health care team at these health centers.

As an outreach worker, the farmworkers I served worked in the Christmas tree fields nine months of the year. Many traveled from Mexico year after year to do this work, leaving behind their homes and families to live with other farmworkers in old houses, trailers, or barracks that were provided by the growers that hired them.

My work entailed visiting farmworkers in their homes in the evenings after work, collecting their personal and contact information, asking questions about their health, and screening for diabetes, high blood pressure, and HIV. They would usually be cleaning up from work and taking turns in the kitchen so many of these conversations happened while they cooked dinner and made lunch for work the next day. I let them know their options for accessing health care in their community and explained the process for making and paying for appointments. During the day, I coordinated these appointments, making calls to farmworkers, clinics, and specialists. I drove farmworkers to appointments and provided Spanish-English interpretation. I learned about their home towns. I heard border crossing stories. I knew when their kids in Mexico were getting in trouble at school. Working in this capacity allowed me to spend the time necessary to gain the trust of farmworkers within our community. I used this insight to help doctors, nurses, dentists, and clinic administrators better understand the conditions that affect farmworkers’ health and adjust treatment plans to best fit the realities they face.

The outreach workers at community and migrant health centers connect farmworkers to important preventative health care services through education, case management, and building trust within the community. The work, while challenging, is extremely fulfilling. We recognize that regardless of where you live, everyone has a right to be healthy. Our nation’s farmworkers, who harvest the fruits and vegetables essential to our health, deserve access to quality health care.

National Public Health Week: Don't Panic! Disaster Preparedness & Farmworkers

The theme for day 2 of 2014 National Public Health Week is disaster preparedness. In recent years, natural disasters in the U.S. have heightened awareness of both individual and community-wide strategies for best preparing for, surviving, and rebuilding after a natural disaster. We have also learned that some populations within our communities fare worse than others and that special consideration should be taken to prepare these populations and to respond to diverse needs before, during, and after a disaster.

Farmworkers and other rural immigrant communities may not receive education on disaster preparedness when it is not culturally-appropriate, written in their primary language, or distributed at venues they trust and frequent. During a disaster, farmworker homes may not be easy to physically locate, as they are sometimes hidden and isolated or “off the grid.” Emergency services may not have records indicating where farmworkers live or their residences may be inaccessible. When seeking help, farmworkers may have difficulty communicating in English with emergency responders and may not know how to access assistance.

In 2007, wildfires in San Diego County, California burned 368,316 acres and destroyed 1,751 homes. Farmworker communities were unprepared to respond to the disaster and were especially vulnerable to the effects of the fire. Safety net providers in the community were not equipped to respond to the cultural, linguistic, economic, and health needs of this displaced community. There were fears about the presence of the Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies. Few had information about shelters and other available assistance. As a result of the fire, many farmworkers lost their work and homes and were unable to access food, water and health care.

After the wildfires, the FarmWorker CARE Coalition (FWCC), a coalition of health centers, community-based organizations, government agencies and academic institutions in San Diego County, developed an emergency preparedness plan for farmworker communities. The emergency preparedness plan relies on community leaders to educate and prepare community members in the event of a disaster. In addition, the FWCC advocates at the local, state and national level to improve access to emergency preparedness information, resources and relief for limited English proficient, hard-to-reach communities.

Farmworker communities need access to information about available resources in the event of a disaster. In preparing the community for a disaster, community-based organizations and leaders in the farmworker community should be involved to engage farmworkers in creating an emergency plan. An effective emergency plan will include culturally- and linguistically-appropriate education and resources to prepare farmworkers before a disaster; a way to most effectively contact and distribute safety messages to farmworkers and their families during an event; and also a plan for identifying and reaching families or individuals who may need help.

To support community health centers, community-based organizations, and others in farmworker communities with disaster and emergency preparedness planning, We have developed materials on available disaster-related food, housing, and income assistance which are available for download from our website. Farmworkers should not be left out of community emergency preparedness. By working together and planning ahead, everyone in our communities will be better prepared and better served during a natural disaster.
 

National Public Health Week: Be Healthy from the Start

April 7th begins the 2014 National Public Health Week! Today’s theme, “Be healthy from the start,” is especially important when bringing awareness to the current state of farmworker health in this country. Today, we focus on farmworker children and access to health care.

Individuals with health insurance are more likely to seek medical care. In the U.S., a staggering number of farmworker children do not have health insurance. Data on farmworkers and their families are hard to collect because of the seasonal and migratory nature of farm work. For this reason, we focus on statistics that describe rural Latinos in the U.S.:

• 31% of rural Latino children are uninsured, compared to 15% of African-American children and 18% of non-Hispanic white children.
• Only 33% of first-generation immigrant children are continuously insured.
• Rural Latino children whose parents are immigrants are even more likely to lack health insurance, even though the majority of them qualify for enrollment in Medicaid or the Child Health Insurance program (CHIP).

Cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes are among the top five causes of death for Latinos in the U.S. The burden of these conditions can be lessened or prevented under the regular care of a physician. Children with health insurance are more likely to have a regular source of health care than children without health insurance. Children who receive regular medical care may grow into adults that value preventative care.

Farmworker Justice is working to diminish the disparity in health care coverage experienced by rural Latino children in the U.S. In the coming weeks, we will be rolling out a program called Conexiones: Connecting Rural Latino Families to Medicaid and CHIP. Four community-based organizations in Florida, North Carolina, California, and Arizona will work with Farmworker Justice to train promotores de salud (lay health workers) to conduct outreach in their communities. They will educate their peers on the eligibility requirements for enrollment in Medicaid and CHIP and help to connect them to state and local resources. In two years, the promotores de salud are expected to reach over 14,000 rural Latinos with information on Medicaid and CHIP, which will increase health care coverage of children in their communities substantially.

This program utilizes the promotores de salud model because these community health workers are extremely effective in engaging in outreach in their communities, especially with hard-to-reach populations. Often sharing the same language and cultural background as those receiving their outreach efforts, they know best where to find their fellow community members and how to effectively deliver important messages about health and in this case, access to health care.
 

Agricultural Exceptionalism: A History of Discrimination against Farmworkers in Labor Laws Results in Poverty for Farmworkers

Jose is a 33-year-old farmworker from Puerto Rico who started working in agriculture at the age of 17. Throughout the years, Jose has traveled up and down the East Coast working in apple, peach, corn, lettuce, basil, celery, blackberry, pumpkin, broccoli, sugarcane, and strawberry crops in Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and New Jersey. A typical work day for Jose starts at 5:00 am. He usually works around 47 hours a week.

In a recent job in Virginia, Jose was paid by a piece rate based on how much he could pick. When he was unable to harvest enough to make enough with the piece rate, he was paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Jose says that he feels this system is “a trap.” He explains that in order to really make a lot more than the minimum wage, you really have to sacrifice your body. 

Jose has never seen a portable toilet in the fields. He also explained that the employers used to pay the Puerto Rican farmworkers for their transportation back to Puerto Rico after the season, but now the farmworkers have to pay for their trips home as well as their transportation from Puerto Rico to the farms. Jose says that makes it more difficult for workers to come since they have significantly higher costs.

Jose loves doing farm work and plans on doing it for many years. He says it’s the employers and the harsh conditions they create that make the work very difficult. That’s why there are not many people doing farm work anymore. Jose has witnessed undocumented workers treated differently from documented workers and forced to work in harsher conditions. He believes that immigration reform will improve the living and working conditions for all farmworkers.

 

The low-wages and poor working conditions that Jose describes result in part from the discriminatory treatment of farmworkers in U.S. labor laws. During the New Deal Era, President Roosevelt struck a bargain with Southern Democrats: they would support worker rights legislation so long as their farmworkers (and other predominantly African-American workers, such as domestic workers) were exempt. Thus, Congress excluded farmworkers from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA), the main federal law that protects workers who join and organize labor unions, and from the federal minimum wage and overtime protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (farmworker children were also excluded from the child labor protections during times when they were not legally required to be in school). Not until 1966 did Congress require employers to pay farmworkers the federal minimum wage. To this day, farmworkers remain excluded from federal overtime requirements, the NLRA, many states’ workers’ compensation laws, and many occupational health and safety protections. The protections for child farmworkers are also weaker than the child labor protections in all other industries.

The labor law exclusions result in poor working conditions and low wage rates for farmworkers who struggle to make ends meet. Farmworker wages are among the lowest in the country: poverty among farmworkers is roughly double that of all wage and salary employees. Additionally, farm work consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous occupations, yet only 31% of farmworkers have health insurance. 

Current proposals in Congress to increase the minimum wage would benefit farmworkers, helping to lift them out of poverty. The proposals in the House and Senate would raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 by 2016 and would subsequently increase the minimum wage yearly to keep up with inflation. This increase would make all the difference for someone like Ray, a 60-year-old farmworker from Florida, who says that the wages where he was picking potatoes in North Carolina are just too low. Ray said that he is willing to take any course and do any job, so long as he can make $10.00 an hour. Ray describes farm work as hard work, saying “I’ve got love for any farmworkers, they earn everything that they make – Spanish, Black, or White.”

In addition to fair wages, farmworkers deserve equal protection under the law. Like other workers in equally demanding jobs, they should receive overtime pay, workers’ compensation insurance, and have the right to organize and collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions.

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