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July 2010, Volume 16, Number 3

Weeding out Abuses

A 13-page June 2010 report outlined abuses allegedly suffered by farm workers, including wage theft, sexual harassment, and inferior and dangerous housing for its workers. The report calls on DOL to hold especially repeat offending farm employers responsible for violations of federal labor laws that aim to protect hired workers.

The report notes that at least half of US crop workers are unauthorized, and that their unauthorized status as well as lack of English and ignorance of US labor laws makes them vulnerable to abuse. The report concluded that DOL has a "very poor" record of labor law enforcement to protect farm workers; the report says that 110 of the 21,375 investigations of Fair Labor Standards Act in FY08 were in agriculture. There were 1,500 investigations under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, and the average civil money penalty for MSPA violations between 2002 and 2008 was $342, a third of the maximum penalty.

The report says that there is a race to the bottom in agriculture, as some employers violate labor, immigration and tax laws to reduce costs and encourage others to follow suit to remain competitive. It cites the growing use of farm labor contractors, and calls for farm employers to be jointly liable for labor law violations with the FLCs who bring workers to their farms.

The report calls on DOL to conduct more investigations in agriculture, to use FLSA's "hot cargo" clause to seize goods made by improperly paid workers, and to raise fines for violations of federal labor laws.

In response, DOL noted that it restored the 1987-2008 H-2A regulations, hired 250 Wage and Hour Division field investigators and targeted illegal employment of children in agriculture, and increased funding for the National Farmworker Jobs Program, which provided services to 18,500 MSFWs in PY 2008-09. The House Education and Labor Committee chaired by Rep George Miller (D-CA) may hold a hearing on farm worker wages and working conditions.

Farmworker Justice and Oxfam America. 2010. Weeding out Abuses: Recommendations for a Law-abiding Farm Labor System. June.

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