Thirty years after passage of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (“AWPA” or “MSPA”), a new report issued today says the law has proven critically important to preventing wage theft and dangerous working and living conditions for many farmworkers across the country. However, the report by Farmworker Justice calls for enhanced labor protections in the law and regulations and for stronger enforcement by the Department of Labor.
“Unfinished Harvest: Agricultural Worker Protection Act at 30,” says the 1983 law, enacted in response to previous legislation’s failure to achieve equity and sufficient protection for migrant workers, has proven beneficial to farmworkers. The law requires agricultural employers to disclose and comply with job terms, regulates the use of farm labor contractors – who are notorious for labor abuses – and contains safety standards for some housing and transportation vehicles.
Congressman George Miller said: “This report by Farmworker Justice is timely and a must-read for policymakers. While AWPA has helped remedy and prevent wage theft, farm labor contracting abuses, unsafe transportation and unhealthy housing, there is much more to be done. Because our immigration system is broken, the majority of farmworkers lack authorized immigration status, and most are too afraid to step forward to challenge illegal employment practices. Unscrupulous employers need to be weeded out, and abused workers need greater access to the justice system and immigration. The working people who sow and harvest our food every season should be treated with dignity and respect.”
However, many farmworkers continue to experience wage theft, and dangerous housing and transportation. Many factors contribute to this reality, notably our broken immigration system and farmworkers’ limited access to attorneys, but many problems can be addressed in the short term through stronger enforcement of AWPA and in the longer term through improvements to the law. To address systemic abuses, the Department of Labor should emphasize holding farm operators jointly responsible with their farm labor contractors for violations of labor protections.
“The AWPA’s enactment was an important step forward,” said Bruce Goldstein, President of Farmworker Justice, “but the wages and working conditions for most of the workers who cultivate and harvest our fruits and vegetables are still inadequate. To reduce serious abuses that harm farmworkers and undermine the agricultural sector of our economy, there are improvements that should be made in AWPA’s enforcement, in the regulations issued to implement the law, and to the law itself.”
Migrant farmworkers, particularly hand-harvest laborers, are frequently paid less than the minimum wage. Many growers rely on shady farm labor contractors to recruit workers, and then assert that the farm labor contractor – not the grower – is the employer, and therefore solely responsible for paying the minimum wage.
In other situations, the grower pays a piece rate – a fixed amount per bucket or tray of goods harvested – that is too low for one worker to be able to earn the $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage. Many workers are forced to rely on their children for help, frequently with the grower’s knowledge, to meet their production quota and earn the minimum wage. The children are paid nothing. Over half of hand-harvesters are undocumented workers who are fearful of trying to assert their rights, and frequently are not even aware of them.
Meanwhile, some members of Congress are working to weaken a powerful enforcement mechanism to protect these workers’ rights. Reps Kurt Schrader (D-OR), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Doc Hastings (R-WA), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Austin Scott (R-GA), have introduced legislation, for example, that would wall off all perishable crops from “hot goods” enforcement.
The U.S. Department of Labor sometimes, has relied on the so-called “hot goods” provision in the federal minimum wage law, to request a federal court order barring not only the employer who has paid less than the minimum wage, but also any other businesses (such as packing sheds or food brokers) that have possession of the goods, from shipping those goods in interstate commerce. The Labor Department has asked the courts for a hot goods order in agriculture about 20 times in the last 11 years to stop these violations, only 2 percent of all FLSA cases filed by the Labor Department during that period.
Why would Congress pass a law that includes such a drastic remedy that applies to all goods, including perishable produce such as blueberries and cherries? Why would the Labor Department seek such a remedy? And wouldn’t the remedy, by preventing shipment of the goods, disrupt the businesses and cause the perishable produce, and perhaps other kinds of goods as well, to become worthless?
The answers to these three questions show, first, that Congress knew what it was doing in passing the law; second, that the Labor Department seeks the remedy in limited circumstances; and, third, that the courts – which alone can issue an emergency order – use their discretion to fashion an order tailored to the specific situation, so that the employees get the back wages they are due and the goods can be sold and shipped in interstate commerce.
Congress passed the hot goods provision to prevent unfair competition by barring goods produced or handled by underpaid workers from entering the flow of interstate commerce. The Supreme Court, in upholding the hot goods provision, made clear that the power of Congress to regulate the interstate flow of goods was not limited to explosives, poisons, and other goods that posed an immediate danger, but applied to all goods. The Supreme Court later ruled that the hot goods provision is “not simply a means to enforce” other goals of the Fair Labor Standards Act (such as the minimum wage), but instead a “central purpose” of the FLSA.
In most hot goods cases, prompt action is essential because otherwise there are no assurances that the underpaid employees will be paid the wages due to them and that the grower will comply with the law in the future. A court order achieves these assurances. Migrant farmworkers move from place to place to do their jobs, so it is critical to distribute back wages due to them as soon as possible. In the absence of a court order, even where an employer agrees to pay back wages, the workers may be difficult to locate.
Only a federal court has the power to issue an emergency order, and to specify conditions and limitations. The Labor Department is willing to agree to an order permitting shipment of the fruit or other goods if the employer and other businesses agree that the proceeds will go to the employees to pay them the back wages they are due, and if the court order includes provisions that assure that there will not be future minimum wage violations.
The employer and other defendants in the lawsuit are free to oppose in court what the Labor Department proposes. But courts usually agree with the Labor Department’s approach, because the assurance of back wage payment means that the goods are no longer “hot” and can thus be sold and shipped. The result is a win-win situation for all parties to the lawsuit.
--James B. Leonard, a retired attorney, handled various FLSA hot goods cases during his 22-year career with the U.S. Department of Labor.
The latest edition of the Eye on Farmworker Health newsletter is now available. Farmworker Justice monitors the on-going research involving health topics and farmworkers. In this newsletter, we provide summaries of the academic research articles and a timely policy analysis. Highlights of the newsletter include:
Obesity Among Latino Children Within a Migrant Farmworker Community
Several studies show a rise in the prevalence of obesity among Mexican-American children. However, there are few studies that focus on the children of migrant Latino farmworkers. This study examines the prevalence of overweight and obesity among the children of migrant Latino farmworkers.
Heat Related Illness Knowledge and Practices among California Hired Farm Workers in the MICASA Study
The study aims to describe farmworkers’ understanding of heat-related illnesses and view of their own vulnerability to heat conditions.
Anticipatory Guidance Preferences of Latina Migrant Farmworker Mothers
The provision of health education materials requires development of promotion materials that are culturally sensitive and appropriate for their lifestyles. This study aims to learn which forms of education materials appeal to Latina migrant farmworker mothers.
Heat Index in Migrant Farmworker Housing: Implications for Rest and Recovery from Work- Related Heat Stress
Several states enforce heat standards that prescribe shaded rest breaks during hot weather and education on adequate water intake. However, risks from enduring excessive heat in housing, which can affect rest and recovery, have been neglected. Daily recovery alleviates the effects of heat on health. For farmworkers, recovery relies significantly on cooler facilities for their nonworking time but they possess limited control over their accommodations. Farmworkers often live in employer-provided housing. Sometimes they rent from a small supply of low-quality rural housing stock. This study aims to define the burden of heat endured by farmworkers in employer-provided housing and to what extent fans or air conditioning can provide relief.
Will farmworkers have access to health insurance?” “What are the obligations of employers?” “How will our access to healthcare change?” These are some of themany questions we heard about the Affordable Care Act from farmworkers across the country. Over the summer, we met with farmworker community-based organizations in California, Florida and Arizona to talk about the Affordable Care Act (ACA). We spoke with promotores de salud and community members to discuss their questions and concerns
Congress’s passage of a two-year budget deal brought good news for immigration reform this week. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a Deputy Whip to Speaker Boehner, said that we could expect the House to vote on some immigration reform bills next summer. Cole was clear that the House would not take up the Senate bill, but he was equally clear that Speaker Boehner wants to act on immigration reform. The budget deal is viewed a positive sign for the prospects of the House taking up immigration reform in 2014 both because it frees up some time on the legislative calendar and has built some goodwill among Members of both parties by proving that compromise is possible in the House. Immigration reform advocates have also pointed to some strong remarks that Speaker Boehner made against conservative interest groups, saying that they have “lost all credibility.” While the remarks were made regarding fiscal reform, some of the groups he refers to also oppose any action on immigration reform. Boehner’s apparent willingness to ignore them bodes well for reform. Of course, Boehner does not speak for everyone in his caucus and so far he has stood by his promise to only bring immigration reform legislation to a vote on the House floor if it has the support of a majority of House Republicans. Because many House Republicans a path to citizenship and some oppose any legalization program, passage of legislation that includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants remains a challenge. Still, these recent activities along with Boehner’s recent hire of immigration expert, Rebecca Talent provide hope for action on immigration reform in 2014.
Advocates for immigration reform have kept up the pressure on the House to act on reform. Last Thursday, more than 1,000 advocates occupied the offices of more than 170 House Members for about an hour. America’s Voice continues to blog about undocumented workers as part of its “Do Your Jobs Campaign,” by highlighting the work of a potato farmworker in Idaho who works 14 – 16 hour days.
Republican Representatives Valadao and Denham of California have been collecting Republican signatures on a letter to House leadership calling for action on immigration legislation. The letter does not mention citizenship or legalization; it simply asks that immigration legislation be addressed on the House floor. The Members say that they hope to deliver the letter in January.
Farmworker Justice continues to advocate for immigration reform with a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants, including farmworkers, and to ensure that legislation contains strong protections for workers.
Stay in the know by reading our briefs on the latest happenings in immigration reform and the impacts on farmworkers.
Immigration reform updates
Immigration is a critically important issue for farmworkers. Learn about current legislation proposals impacting farmworkers.
Learn about the history of guestworker programs, H-2A program for temporary agricultural work, and the H-2B visa program.