Labor Rights Week: Unfinished Business in the Fields

Today marks the beginning of Labor Rights Week, a time when the United States and many of its allies recognize the rights and needs of the workforce. Many of these countries and their voluntary organizations, including the U.S., will focus on the lack of rights and the enormous needs of workers in developing countries around the world. It is also an opportunity to reflect on the most vulnerable workers in America who are in great need of sharing in the rights that nearly all other workers in this country enjoy.

I am talking about our nation’s migrant and seasonal farmworkers. They make up about 2.5 million of our huge workforce; not a large percentage, but, nonetheless, they perform work that is vital to our economy and to the food needs of our population. Yet, in 2012, here are some facts that most people are probably unaware of:

  1. By federal law, agricultural employers are not required to pay time and a half for overtime work. They are the only industry exempt from this requirement under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Thus, a farmworker earning the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour may work 80 hours during a heavy part of the harvest season. His or her pay will remain at $7.25 per hour, even on Saturday, Sunday and/or on holidays.
  2. Farmworkers’ children are permitted by law to work in the fields beginning at age 12. The only restriction: they are not allowed to work for wages while school is in session. Outside of school hours, they can work an unlimited number of hours under incredibly dangerous and difficult conditions. For most jobs in America, a child must be at least 16 years old to work. In those occupations proven to be especially hazardous, 18 is the beginning age. Yet, in agriculture, which is consistently ranked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as one of the three most dangerous industries in America for any worker and the most dangerous for youth, children can legally work at just 12-years-old.
  3. Farmworkers have no federal right to unemployment insurance. It is available on a state by state basis. While most states have some UI coverage for agricultural workers, some do not. Even in states that do have such coverage, there are often restrictions that keep them from the benefit that has served as an economic safety net for nearly all of this country’s workers for over 70 years. 
  4. Farmworkers typically do not get the job-related benefits most American workers take for granted in 2012. Health insurance, paid sick days, family leave, holidays and vacation time are almost unknown to farmworkers, unless they are covered by a collective bargaining agreement—of which only a tiny percentage are covered. 
  5. Most of the time, they do not get paid if weather conditions keep them out of the fields. (Can you imagine if the internet went down and your boss told you that, as a result, you wouldn’t be paid for the day?) 
  6. They have virtually no job security. Once a harvest or planting season ends, they are on their own. Their last employer has no responsibility to assure them work. Thus, a farmworker may earn decent money via piecework during a harvest, which may last several weeks, and then experience many more weeks of unemployment—a period during which they will receive no unemployment insurance checks. The result: farm work is the lowest paid occupation in America, based on average, annual individual and family earnings.

It is good to celebrate many of the labor successes that have occurred in America over the years since the New Deal—the era that established so many of the rights our nation’s workers enjoy. While we do that, we need to recognize that there is a huge area of unfinished business. Part of that business should be bringing farmworkers into parity with the rest of America’s workforce. It is time to end what amounts to economic discrimination against 2.5 million workers in our country.

If you or your organization is taking part in Labor Rights Week 2012, be sure to let us know by sharing it on the AFOP National Facebook page.

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About David Strauss, AFOP's Executive Director

David A. Strauss has actively advocated for America’s farmworkers and served AFOP member agencies as the Executive Director since 2000. In addition to his role as the Executive Director, David is also on the steering committees of the Child Labor Coalition and the National Farmworker Alliance, as well as a member of the Board of Directors of the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project. David has a Master of Arts in public administration and a B.A. in political science. He and his family live in Rockville, Maryland.
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2 Responses to Labor Rights Week: Unfinished Business in the Fields

  1. Rita McManus says:

    Excellent article Dave, it is time to bring farmworkers into parity with the rest of America’s workforce. It is time to end this economic discrimination against 2.5 million workers in our country.

  2. Pingback: Further Action Needed to Protect Farmworkers | AFOP Blog

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