FJ Blog

Friday, 03 October 2014

Agriculture is an industry rife with abuse of workers. Because the majority of workers are undocumented, it makes it very difficult for farmworkers to enforce the few labor protections that cover them. In the absence of immigration reform or administrative relief providing farmworkers with immigration status with a path to citizenship or protection from deportation and work authorization, the Department of Labor plays a critical role in ensuring that abuses of farmworkers are remedied.

A recent Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, (DOL) investigation in the Philadelphia-Southern New Jersey area highlights the importance of labor law enforcement in agriculture. The DOL investigation revealed that a farm labor contractor, Heng Heng Agency, Inc. and its president, Visith Oum, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) minimum wage and record keeping requirements and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act’s (AWPA) safe transportation requirements, including the requirement that farm labor contractors obtain motor vehicle insurance in compliance with the law. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Heng Heng supplied 125 Latino, Vietnamese and Cambodian farmworkers to Medford Nurseries in Lumberton, NJ.

DOL’s investigation also found that Medford Nurseries was a joint employer of the workers, which means that they are responsible, along with the contractor, for compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act’s and the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act’s provisions. Medford nurseries settled with the DOL and paid $36,505 in back wages to the workers. DOL is seeking an additional $146,100 in civil money penalties from Heng Heng for its willful and repeat violations of the FLSA and AWPA.

Heng Heng and Oum have a history or labor law violations. They were recently sued by another agricultural employer, Frank Donio, Inc. to whom Heng Heng supplied labor. Donio, Inc. is seeking to recover $650,000 in back wages that Donio paid to 500 workers to settle a DOL investigation. 

Holding growers accountable under the doctrine of joint employment is essential for ensuring that exploited farmworkers receive just compensation for their injuries. As the Heng Heng case illustrates, legal action against an FLC alone may yield little in the way of lost wages or damages. FLCs are often transient, hard to find, and insolvent or otherwise judgment-proof. Suing them alone does little to provide victimized farmworkers with restitution or to deter future violations. Growers control the operation of their business, are in the best position to ensure that FLCs comply with workers’ rights, and that workers are adequately compensated if the FLCs violate the law. Holding growers accountable has proven to be the only way to effectively deter illegal conduct and provide farmworkers with meaningful remedies.

Some good news for farmworkers came out of California this week that will help address the abuses associated with farm labor contractors. The Governor signed into law AB 1897, which holds companies with 25 workers or more liable for most labor contractors’ wage violations and failure to provide workers’ compensation across industries. The law also restricts work site employers from shifting responsibility for occupational safety and health protections to contractors. In California, 55% of farmworkers employed on crop farms are hired by farm labor contractors or other intermediaries.1 At least in part, this trend reflects an effort by growers to evade responsibility for labor and immigration laws. The subcontracting model in agriculture and other forms of contingent labor supply have increasingly been used in other low-wage industries that have high rates of labor law violations as well. Although holding employers jointly liability for labor contractor violations is possible under certain federal and state labor laws, this issue often involves litigating the specific facts and circumstances of each case. AB 1897’s clear rule holding companies liable for their contractor’s wage payment and workers’ compensation will help ensure that companies exercise greater oversight over their contractors to ensure there is compliance with the law. At least one business oriented journal notes that by exercising greater oversight, company joint liability under other protections may in turn be implicated. This legislation, which was co-sponsored by the California Labor Federation, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and supported by the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, and others, should have a strong positive impact for farmworkers as well as other low-wage and contingent California workers. 

In addition to AB 1897, this past week Governor Brown signed into law two other pieces of legislation that should help prevent labor law violations for farmworkers and others. SB 1087, which is supported by the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and others, provides for increased sexual harassment training requirements for supervisors and farm labor contractors. Farm labor contractors will also have to answer questions about sexual harassment in their licensing exams. This legislation is one small step towards preventing the huge problem of sexual violence and harassment of farmworker women, but much more needs to be done to combat the rampant abuse.

Finally, Governor Brown signed SB 477, which provides protections for internationally recruited workers on visas coming to work in California. The Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking advocated for this bill, which is very similar to the protections included in the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill, S, 744. Experiences over many years across various visa programs demonstrate the need for such oversight, monitoring, transparency and regulation of international recruitment systems. Workers’ experiences during recruitment abroad, which include fraud and debt due to recruitment fees, have a substantial impact on their earnings and working conditions in the U.S., as well as on those of the U.S. workers in the labor market where the foreign workers are employed. SB 477 seeks to address these abuses by requiring disclosures about job terms during the recruitment and prohibiting recruitment fees. SB 477 also requires foreign labor contractors to register with the Labor Commissioner and requires employers to use registered labor contractors. 

Unfortunately, Gov. Jerry Brown also vetoed legislation Sunday that would have made it harder for California farmers to stall new contracts under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act.

Farmworker Justice applauds the California Legislature and Governor Brown for the enactment of these important laws protecting farmworkers and others. We sent a letter to Governor Brown in support of SB 1087 and AB 1897 and joined a sign-on a letter to Governor Brown from the International Labor Recruitment Working Group in support of SB 477. We continue to advocate at the federal level for immigration status and increased labor protections for farmworkers in order to end the abuse of farmworkers.  

1Philip Martin California Ag Employment: 2014 (last visited July 16, 2014).

by Megan Horn
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Friday, 26 September 2014

Farmworker Justice invites all of our partners to actively join in observing National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day this Saturday, September 27th.
In the United States the gay and bisexual community continues to be disproportionately burdened by the AIDS epidemic.

The CDC reports gay and bisexual men, as well as other men who have sex with men (MSM), comprise approximately 2 percent of the U.S. population yet accounted for 62 percent of the nearly 50,000 new HIV diagnoses in 2011.

Latino men who have sex with men face significant risk for HIV. In 2011, men accounted for 84 percent of new diagnoses within the Latino community, and of these infections 79 percent were attributed to male-to-male sexual contact. An estimated 1 in 36 Latino men will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime. Among Latino gay and bisexual men, the majority of new infections are occurring in young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 years.

HIV risk is further exacerbated by the homophobia, stigma and discrimination that continues to be perpetuated against the gay and bisexual community, in particular towards men of color. Latino men who have sex with men are particularly vulnerable to racial stigma and discrimination within the Latino community, as well as from the broader gay and bisexual community, which in turn lends to increased social isolation and consequent negative health outcomes. Without support of family, friends and their community, Latino gay and bisexual men are less likely to openly discuss and practice HIV prevention behaviors or to get tested. 

We can all play a part in putting an end to the AIDS epidemic by taking the time to learn about HIV in the gay and bisexual community, and taking a stand to stop stigma and discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Start today by getting more information:

  • Razones/Reasons: The CDC’s HIV prevention campaign targeting Latino gay and bisexual men.
  • Sin Vergüenza/Without Shame: A telenovela series produced by AltaMed, which tells the story of a family in which each member is susceptible for HIV, and highlights the importance of being honest and getting tested.
  •  Find a testing site near you! 

Farmworker Justice has partnered with CDC's Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative (AAALI), a multi-year national communication initiative to reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS among diverse communities.

by Caitlin Ruppel
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Friday, 19 September 2014

The past weeks have been extremely disappointing and disheartening for immigrant communities and immigration reform advocates. On September 6th, the White House announced a delay in President Obama’s plans for administrative action to address the broken immigration system, which he had previously promised would take place by the end of the summer. The President justified the delay, saying “… I'm going to act because it's the right thing for the country…But it's going to be more sustainable and more effective if the public understands what the facts are on immigration, what we've done on unaccompanied children and why it's necessary.” Cecilia Muñoz, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, also said that after the elections it will be easier to protect the actions he takes. The situation of unaccompanied minors at the border had garnered the attention of the American public and polling data showed that Americans were more concerned with immigration than they have been in the past.

Although President Obama, denied the role of politics in his decision to delay administrative relief, many argue that the real reason for the President’s delay is due to the upcoming elections. Control of the Senate is up for grabs this November and several Democratic Senators in tight races had asked for the delay.

Pro-immigration reform groups and some Democrats have criticized the President’s delay. Last week, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) met with senior White House officials to express their frustration with the delay. White House officials reassured the CHC that the President will act by the end of the year. The CHC approved a resolution urging the President to act by the holidays. 

Meanwhile, anti-immigrant Senators Sessions and Cruz took advantage of their brief presence in DC (both the House and Senate are now out of session until after the November election) to push a measure opposing executive action by the President to address the broken immigration system. Specifically, the measure would have disallowed any new DACA applicants and prohibited the President from creating any new affirmative relief programs for undocumented immigrants. A procedural vote on the anti-immigrant measure failed on a 50-50 vote to garner the 51 votes needed to move forward. The Senators had tried to offer the proposal as an amendment to the continuing resolution to keep the government funded through December 11th and provide funding for the situation in Syria. Five Democrats joined Republican Senators in supporting the measure: Senators Kay Hagan (NC), Mary Landrieu (LA), Mark Pryor (AK), Jeanne Shaheen (NH) and Joe Manchin III (WV). Manchin was the only Democrat who voted for the measure who is not up for reelection this November.

Finally, check out the Economic Policy Institute’s blog “Here’s Why We Need to Legalize the Undocumented Immigrant Workforce.” The blog discusses an article in the Tennessean about exploited undocumented farmworkers on a tobacco farm in Tennessee who were threatened with immigration enforcement when they told their boss their plans to leave for another job. The article illustrates that the only way to end the exploitation of farmworkers is for the undocumented population to be granted protection from deportation and work authorization. Farmworker Justice will continue to press the President to provide a broad, bold affirmative relief program for undocumented immigrants that includes farmworkers and their families.  

by Megan Horn
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