This week we celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA), which was signed into law on January 14, 1983. The landmark legislation serves as the backbone of protections afforded to our nation’s farmworkers. While there are countless issues that continue to plague farmworkers, as a result of exemptions from many of our laws governing workers’ wages and safety and a lack of necessary resources to better enforce labor laws, the MSPA serves as one of the few safeguards against some of the heinous actions perpetrated against agricultural workers.
Farm work, as an occupation, is fraught with conditions that would be deemed by the vast majority of America’s workforce as appalling and, simply put, intolerable. In a story published just this past September, The Prospect’s Tracie McMillan describes wage theft in agriculture as being as “common as dirt” and she notes that in California’s fields, “wage theft is how agribusiness is done.” This is just one of the more recent articles recounting a reality often disregarded or unnoticed by the public at large, yet is all too familiar for the people helping feed America.
For many farmworker women, sexual harassment and violence are also viewed as just a part of the job. In fact, a 2010 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that of 150 female farmworkers who were interviewed in California’s Central Valley, 80 percent had been victims of sexual harassment, compared with around half of the general female workforce.
Most disturbing is that these conditions faced by farmworkers are not just a problem in one state; these circumstances are rife in U.S. agriculture. In Florida, accounts of farmworkers being exploited and abused erupted after one man escaped and shared his story of being bound by debt in modern-day slavery. People who travel to the U.S. to perform work temporarily through the H-2A guestworker program are often victims of unlawful practices that exploit the vulnerability of these foreign workers and force them to labor under oppressive conditions. In “No Way to Treat a Guest,” Farmworker Justice reports on the many injustices these workers face, detailing the experiences of workers from states including Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, and North Carolina, among others.
Under the MSPA, farmworkers are guaranteed certain safeguards, including disclosure of the terms of employment and being paid all wages they are due, when they are due. Additionally, law requires that employers, or entities acting in such a capacity, ensure all vehicles used to transport workers are insured and meet safety standards. In many of the most publicized cases of farmworkers being taken advantage of and even dying due to negligence, the agribusiness involved has employed labor contractors to recruit and hire workers. While this may relieve the business of some obligations under certain circumstances, they are required to guarantee the farm labor contractor is registered with the U.S. Department of Labor.
The law also requires employers to ensure farmworker housing, if provided to the workers under the terms of service, meets health and safety requirements. Typically, agricultural employers who hire migrant farmworkers will provide housing, as those workers may only be in the area for a short period of time during the harvest. It would be nearly impossible for workers traveling from other states to secure housing under these circumstances. In the case of guestworkers, it is mandatory for employers to provide living accommodations.
Despite MSPA requirements, rundown and substandard housing remains prevalent. A 2008 study of 43 randomly selected farmworker labor camps in North Carolina found that all camps had exterior violations and 93 percent had at least one interior problem. This past August, California Institute for Rural Studies issued a report highlighting the issue of inadequate housing in farmworker communities and the impact it has on the physical and mental health of farmworkers in that state.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division enforces the protections afforded under the MSPA; however, from our investigations and interactions with migrant and seasonal farmworkers, as well as other farmworker advocates, it is clear more resources and protections are needed. Fair wages and better working conditions will result in a more stable workforce for agricultural employers and secure our country’s path to greater food security.
As we celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the MSPA, it is a good time to also reflect on what actions are still needed to provide farmworkers with the same protections guaranteed for workers in nearly all other industries. We must institute changes to better protect these workers who are so integral to our food system. Get involved by finding out more about the issues facing farmworkers and supporting the organizations advocating for agricultural workers.