30 Years After the Enactment of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, More Effort is Needed to Reduce Labor Violations in Agriculture

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (AWPA), the legislation that provides labor protections to farmworkers, who are excluded from labor protections that cover most other occupations. The law regulates the use of farm labor contractors and creates certain labor protections. Employers must:

1. Disclose wage rates and other job terms;
2. Keep detailed records of wages and hours worked and provide workers with itemized pay statements;
3. Pay workers’ wages when due and comply with all other promised job terms and working arrangements;
4. Meet local and federal housing safety and health standards;
5. Have insurance coverage when transporting workers and make sure that vehicles used to transport workers meet basic safety standards.

The AWPA delegates to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) the obligation and right to enforce its protections. Importantly, the law also gives farmworkers the right to sue in federal court to enforce their rights. DOL lacks the resources, and at times the interest, to bring AWPA lawsuits. In addition, federal court jurisdiction can offer greater assurances of impartiality compared to state courts.

Congress enacted the AWPA in 1983 to replace an earlier law, the Farm Labor Contractor Registration Act (FLCRA) of 1963, which focused on regulating farm labor contractors (FLCs), infamous for subjecting workers to debt peonage and slavery. However, the FLCRA did not regulate the growers who employ the FLCs, and the FLCs themselves often do not have enough money to compensate workers for employment rights abuses. This motivated some growers to save money by hiring unscrupulous FLCs while shielding themselves from liability. In enacting the AWPA, Congress intended to make it clear that in most instances growers are jointly responsible for ensuring that their FLCs follow the law.

While the AWPA is an important employment law, farmworkers remain among the most marginalized and vulnerable workers in our nation. Recordkeeping, wage and hour and housing violations remain commonplace. There are still efforts by many growers to deny that they are jointly responsible with their labor contractors for the mistreatment of farmworkers on their farms. Despite the provisions of AWPA, poor labor conditions in farmwork persist, partly because the U.S. Department of Labor’s enforcement is not adequate to punish and deter violations. In addition, most farmworkers are undocumented, making it unlikely that they will challenge illegal conduct, and if they wish to, they are not eligible for federally funded legal services. Moreover, H-2A temporary agricultural guestworkers are not covered by the AWPA, making them more vulnerable to abuse. 

In order to make the AWPA’s promise a reality, the government should provide more resources for AWPA enforcement, penalties for violations should be increased, legal aid programs should be permitted to represent undocumented farmworkers, and Congress should provide a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers in the United States, including farmworkers.

For more information about employment law for farmworkers, please read Farmworker Justice’s report, “Weeding Out Abuses: Recommendations for a law-abiding farm labor system.”

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