This week, our investigative series is detailing the shocking conditions under which many U.S. migrant farmworkers work and live.
It might be possible to write this off as just another sad story of farmworker abuses, except this has been going on in the United States for decades.
The nation’s farmworkers are for the most part invisible — but without their efforts, U.S. consumers would not enjoy the blemish-free fruits and vegetables they demand.
Most migrant farmworkers lack basic labor protections such as overtime pay, health insurance and disability insurance.
Congress has been loath to do anything about migrant farmworker abuses. After all, a large proportion of workers don’t vote, and despite the best efforts of a handful of advocacy groups, migrant farmworkers have limited voice in government.
So it’s not surprising that the laws set up to protect migrant farmworkers — in particular the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act of 1983 — are often ignored by big agribusinesses looking to maximize profit.
In part, the act requires agricultural employers to disclose terms of employment at the time of recruitment and comply with those terms. Employers, when using farm labor contractors to recruit, supervise or transport farmworkers, must confirm that those contractors are registered with and licensed by the U.S. Department of Labor. They must also ensure that providers of farmworker housing meet local and federal housing standards.
But the law does not allow for collective bargaining. Nor does it apply to roughly a third of all migrant farmworkers who toil for smaller employers. And if a farmworker is hired through farm labor contractors, which approximately half of all farm workers are, then their growers can avoid state and federal employment laws, including minimum wage requirements.
Out of fear of retribution, migrant farmworkers often fail to protest inadequate conditions or report employers’ violation of labor, health or safety laws to federal or state authorities.
At the end of the day, protections for migrant farmworkers are only as good as the laws on the books — and current laws are inadequate, creating a culture not unlike a 21st century equivalent of slave labor.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.