Migrant Farm Workers Make Up Most of the Agriculture Industry
A large portion of the American farm worker population is made up of immigrants: some under the temporary worker program, some legal residents, and many undocumented. Migrant farm laborers face a special set of challenges in the U.S. workforce–especially refusal of employment rights.
Barriers to accessing these rights include language barriers, lack of education, unfamiliarity with the legal system, intimidation by employers, fear of job loss, and the possibility of being reported to immigration services in the case of undocumented immigrants. Addressing these systemic issues is a difficult task, but one that is not without its champions–many of whom identify with the sustainable agriculture movement.
Labor Laws Protect Everyone Equally, Regardless of Immigration Status
Fortunately, most federal and state labor laws do not discriminate with regard to immigration status. Programs such as the temporary worker program allow the recruitment of foreign nationals for the purpose of farm work and protect their rights to fair wages, benefits, working conditions, housing, and transportation.
This particular program even requires employers to provide transportation for workers who complete a farm season with transportation back to their native country. Up to 45,000 visas are allowed through this program for agricultural jobs, securing both labor and fair treatment.
Unfair Labor Practices Persist Despite Labor Laws
Yet violations of these regulations persist. Many migrant laborers assume that these laws do not apply for them. They often believe they are ineligible for the treatment shown naturalized citizens and are not protected by employment rights like overtime pay, safety training and worker’s comp.
Some farm owners use this perception (coupled with other fears surrounding immigration status) to exploit immigrants by compensating them inadequately and not providing basic worker’s rights. Additionally, if workers under the temporary worker program do not complete a full season, they are not guaranteed return transportation–putting them in a precarious position that is easily exploited.
Undocumented Workers: Illegal Immigrants Face Worse Conditions
The situation is much worse for undocumented migrant farm workers, who must live with the constant possibility of immigration enforcement, detainment, and deportation. Employers have used this to their advantage, in many cases, deterring worker dissent and demand for fair labor practices by threatening to report their illegal immigration status. This has led to a prevailing silence among migrant workers and a powerful disincentive to seek protection under the law.
Making matters worse, legal agencies that receive federal funding are not allowed to represent undocumented workers, robbing them of affordable legal recourse in most circumstances.
Addressing Unfair Labor Conditions for Migrant Farm Workers
With somewhere between 50% and 90% of all farm workers being undocumented immigrants, these are problems of pandemic proportions. To address the issue of unfair labor practices, organizations such as Fair Trade and United Farm Workers have arisen.
These organizations certify food producers that provide equitable and safe conditions for their workers, allowing consumers to identify and purchase ethically produced products.
Consuming responsibly casts an economic vote for change in the right direction. Supply rises to meet demand once the latter has become apparent and these types of certification allow consumers to make that demand clear.
[photocredit: OSU; UW, Fair Trade; United Farm Workers]