Law To End Abuse of Farmworkers Needs Strengthening

Farmworker Justice, the tiny but tireless organization that advocates for migrant and seasonal farmworkers, held a briefing on Capitol Hill yesterday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Protection Act (AWPA), a federal law designed to help farmworkers get paid and obtain safe transportation to the fields without fear of retaliation. I worked on the legislation and the implementing regulations 30 years ago as a staffer for Rep. Bill Ford, so I listened with mixed emotions as lawyers familiar with the Act outlined both how the law has helped and where it has fallen short.

AWPA did not change the basic powerlessness of migrant farmworkers, especially the undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America who do most of the farm work in the West and Southwest.  As Hector Sanchez of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and Mary Bauer, a legal aid attorney from Virginia, put it, farmworkers still live and work in Third World conditions here in the U.S., the richest country on earth. They are often housed in shacks, trailers, cars, or even chicken coops with no plumbing.

Farmworkers are paid low wages, they experience high rates of injury and death on the job, and in spite of the fact that it’s now illegal under federal law to cheat farmworkers out of wages as well as out of Social Security contributions—it still happens. Undocumented immigrant farmworkers live in fear of deportation. And many of the female farmworkers live with the threat of sexual harassment.

Even so, in some ways their lives have improved. They and their children are less likely to be sprayed by dangerous pesticides, and they can sue for wages and damages. The Obama Labor Department is enforcing AWPA more aggressively and paying more attention to labor standards in agriculture than at any time in the last 30 years.

The AWPA established that farmers and growers are in most cases joint employers with the farm labor contractors that move workers from farm to farm. The migrant farmworkers are not forced to chase after thinly capitalized contractors to get their wages but can demand that the farm that jointly employs them makes good on their wages and Social Security contributions. Knowing that they are ultimately responsible makes growers more vigilant about hiring responsible contractors and insisting that legal wages are paid.

There is no reason that the people who produce our food should live in squalor or be treated with anything less than dignity. AWPA was a step toward better treatment of migrant farmworkers, but more should be done. Migrant farm workers should have greater access to legal assistance through the Legal Services Corporation and the law should be amended to authorize Legal Services to serve all farmworkers, whether documented or not. The fines for cheating farmworkers on their wages or otherwise violating AWPA should be increased enough to make them a real deterrent. And of course, the undocumented who work here and feed the nation should be given legal status and freed from the vulnerability and exploitation that accompany undocumented status.

I salute Farmworker Justice for their defense of farmworker rights and want to recognize two members of Congress who spoke at the AWPA briefing. Rep. Tony Cardenas and Rep. Juan Vargas are both the sons of immigrant farmworker parents from California. They are testaments to what migrant farmworkers and their families can accomplish if they are given the opportunities and respect they deserve.