Farmworkers in the U.S.

Part II: The New York Times Article on Health Care for Farmworkers Ignored the Farm Labor Contracting Scam

The New York Times article about health care reform in agriculture, “Tacking Health Care Costs Onto California Farm Produce” (Aug. 21) emphasized the views of the labor intermediaries, known as farm labor contractors, “who provide farmers with armies of field workers.“ The farm labor contracting system is a fundamental problem that deserved some explanation to help readers understand the conditions experienced by many farmworkers and their challenges regarding health care.

Farmers, many of them with big industrialized operations requiring large workforces, use farm labor contractors (FLCs) to fulfill their labor needs. FLCs may perform one or more roles, including recruiting, transporting, hiring, supervising, housing, and paying workers. In 1963, Congress passed the Farm Labor Contractor Registration Act, since replaced and expanded by the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act of 1983, to regulate the use of FLCs due to widely publicized abuses.

Unfortunately, today abuses continue. Many farm operators, or “growers,” contend that they don’t employ any farmworkers on their farms. Rather, they claim that the FLC is the sole “employer” of the farmworkers who labor on the farmers’ property to cultivate and harvest the farmers’ crops. Frequently, such growers hope to escape responsibility, and liability, for paying the minimum wage, providing workers’ compensation coverage, paying Social Security and other taxes, providing drinking water and toilets in the field, and complying with immigration law. In other words, it’s often an avoidance scheme.

The farm labor contractors compete for business with growers against other FLCs by offering to provide them workers at lower and lower cost. As a 2008 USDA study found, the use of FLCs is a factor “accounting for the relatively low earnings of farmworkers (Kandel, W. Profile of hired farmworkers. USDA Economic Research Service. p. 22)." In many cases, the FLCs goal of fulfilling the growers’ quest for labor at the lowest possible cost leads to illegal practices, including failure to pay the minimum wage, violation of safety standards, and debt peonage. Too often the labor contractor cannot be found or has no assets to pay a court judgment for unpaid wages. And when one FLC is caught and punished, it doesn’t take much for growers to find a replacement.

One strategy to remedy and deter such abuses is to hold both the grower and the farm labor contractor responsible as joint “employers” of the farmworkers and therefore jointly responsible for complying with the minimum wage and other wage-hour laws, which have helpful definitions of employment relationships. A grower can still require a labor contractor to indemnify it when violations are found, but the worker would not bear the brunt if the FLC can’t pay what’s owed. Joint liability encourages employers to deal with FLCs who have the economic wherewithal and the will to comply with their responsibilities. Unfortunately, lawsuits often are necessary to force growers to accept joint responsibility.

The discussion of health insurance coverage for America’s farmworkers should begin, as it does for most workers in the United States, with their employers. The article, instead of focusing on farm labor contractors, should have focused on the real employers – the farm operators on whose land farmworkers labor to grow and harvest their fruits and vegetables.  

Farmworkers Are Using Social Media to Help Influence Policy

Websites like Facebook and Twitter help farmworkers not only to speak to people who influence policy but also the public who might not be aware of conditions in the fields. From June 25th to June 28th farmworkers posted pictures, on Facebook and Twitter, of themselves working in the fields or carrying homemade signs with words in support of farmworkers and immigration reform. With the link, #Fieldfotos, they sent these pictures to Senators asking them to support the bill. 

Farmworker Women Join the Immigration Conversation

A delegation of more than 60 farmworker women leaders and advocates will meet in Washington, D.C. from April 6 through the 10, 2013 to educate members of Congress about farmworker women's unique concerns related to the United States' broken immigration system, including issues related to family separation, discrimination against internationally recruited women workers, and the current anti-immigrant sentiment that exists in the United States. The women are members of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (National Farmworker Women's Alliance, in English; Alianza de Campesinas). Members will be traveling from Florida, Arizona, California, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Texas to participate.

Read the full blog:

Where Pesticides Drift: A Look at Toxic Exposures to Children

As part of National Farmworker Awareness Week, Farmworker Justice recognizes the dangers of pesticides to the health and safety of farmworkers. One of the many problems pesticide use in agriculture poses is pesticide drift. Pesticide drift doesn’t have any real and defined boundaries.

Children are often subjected to pesticide exposure, whether or not they are intentionally near agricultural fields. Houses and schools in rural, agricultural communities frequently border fields exposing families and children to pesticide drift as they engage in their daily routines. The 1993 National Academy of Science study on children’s risks from pesticides found that agricultural pesticide drift can contribute to kids’ overall pesticide exposure and that airborne pesticide residues are generally higher in areas close to agricultural lands. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation has also documented harmful exposures to the public from pesticide drift. Many pesticide residues can remain in the water and soil for years, effectively contaminating entire food supply chains. 

Farmworker Justice, in addition to a number of other advocates, has filed a petition asking the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remedy ongoing violations of its legal obligations to protect children from unsafe aggregate exposures to pesticides. This petition implores the EPA to protect children from exposure to toxic pesticides that drift from agricultural fields and contaminate areas where children congregate such as schools, homes, parks, and daycare centers. 

Read the full blog: 

Access to Education: Promotores Bring Innovative Strategies to Reaching Community Members

As part of National Farmworker Awareness Week, Farmworker Justice recognizes the importance of education access for farmworkers. Education access impacts all farmworkers. From children who work in the fields, to farmworker children whose education can be interrupted by the necessary migration following crops, to youth who have difficulty applying for college because their transcripts are not coordinated across states, and to farmworker adults who often have received limited education through out their own lives. Farmworker Justice not only works in collaboration with other organizations to address farmworker children and youth issues but also address education access issues amongst adults through our promotores de salud programs.

Using the promotor de salud model Farmworker Justice partners with community-based farmworker organizations, trains a cadre of local promotores, and supports them as they conduct outreach among farmworker families and peers in their local communities. We are currently working with promotores to conduct outreach on issues such as pesticide safety, heat stress prevention, and workers’ rights. 

Read the full blog which includes a story from a promotor :

Farmworkers in the News: Labor Shortages and Guestworker Programs

Grower’s claims of agricultural labor shortages and complaints about the H-2A program continue to be pervasive in the media. In one Washington article, grower representatives simultaneously complained that the H-2A program is “unworkable,” and that the program saved this year’s apple harvest. In fact, the Washington apple industry appears to be doing quite well this year.

Agriculture’s Claimed Labor Shortage Fails Fact Checking

John Carney’s blog post, part of a series, points to the fallacy behind grower cries of “labor shortages” and highlights the ability of growers to pay higher wages to attract and retain workers. The law of supply and demand does apply to agriculture. We would just add to the article that immigration reform is needed to provide undocumented farmworkers with a roadmap to citizenship because the majority of the workforce lacks authorized immigration status. Immigration reform will help stabilize the farm labor force and help farmworkers improve their wages and working conditions

Supreme Court Upholds Health Care Reform, But Farmworkers Will Still Face Challenges in Access to Health Care

The Supreme Court’s decision upholding as constitutional most of the health system reform legislation, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), will enable millions of people to gain access to health care and to improve their health.  Unfortunately, many migrant and seasonal farmworkers – due to the nature of their agricultural work and rural communities – will face significant obstacles in taking advantage of the new law.  Farmworker Justice will work with community-based organizations, medical providers and government agencies to reduce those obstacles.  However, our broken immigration system will

NYT Op-Ed : Pitting Child Safety Against the Family Farm

Marjorie Elizabeth Wood’s Op-Ed in the New York Times Pitting Child Safety Against the Family Farm brings the conversation about children working in agriculture back to the core of the recent battle that ensued after the Department of Labor proposed changes to the hazardous orders to protect children employed in agriculture. Due to political pressure, the DOL decided not to pursue the changes. Ms. Wood’s Op-Ed reminds readers of the long history of excluding children from agriculture reform based upon the argument of infringing on the “family farm.”

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