Legalizing the United States’ 11 million undocumented immigrants will remove a major impediment to their integration in the social mainstream, as citizens, job creators, and taxpayers. But amid the broader debate over comprehensive immigration reform, the special case of agriculture remains obscured.
Farm workers are still an oppressed work force in this country. There are no signs that reform will improve their legal status.
Employers involved with labor-intensive agriculture find it increasingly difficult to secure a well-trained labor supply to meet the demands of manufacturers, retailers, and consumers for safe food produced under conditions that are just to workers and the environment.
Agriculture work is characterized by the cultivation of many short-term crops, some in a timetable as brief as three to four weeks. The availability of short-term workers is a constant issue.
Much has been said of Americans’ unwillingness to do this work. Advocates argue that increasing wages and benefits for farm workers would make these jobs more appealing to “domestics.”
Pay and conditions must improve, but such reforms will not be enough to guarantee a secure work force. A permanent resident or U.S. citizen cannot support a family year-round with very short-term jobs. Turnover in agricultural occupations is high.
Both domestic and immigrant workers have a natural desire to seek employment outside agriculture that is more stable and offers better, more consistent pay. Training and retaining good workers under these conditions is hard, and will remain a problem even after immigration reform becomes law.
Advocates for farmers and farm workers have been stymied repeatedly by efforts to limit solutions to federal and state regulatory forums. As farm workers generally remain impoverished and exploited, everyone has missed the obvious: Farm workers have never been given the opportunity to speak for themselves.
Since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, farm workers have been excluded from America’s labor laws and subsequent reforms. The labor-relations law provides other workers an orderly process to gain representation and bargaining rights that are denied farm workers.
This wouldn’t be a regulatory issue if the manufacturers and retailers who control agricultural supply chains would correct the inequities they have designed. When manufacturers financially marginalize those on the bottom of their supply chains to increase their own profits, farmers are forced to cut corners to survive.
Farmers hire workers provided by “crew leaders” or labor contractors, who historically underpay and sometimes exploit domestic and immigrant workers alike. Farmers must deal with these misdeeds at the same time they address the risks of climate catastrophes and the rising costs of fuel, fertilizer, and other farm products. They have no bargaining power with their buyers to reflect the true cost of doing business with them.
Meanwhile, many farm workers are stuck at the very bottom in a life of squalor, low wages, and insecurity. They fear to complain, lest they suffer retaliation that is emotionally, physically, and spiritually draining.
Immigration reform may bring desired legal status for many farm workers. But it will not solve their economic marginalization within a system that is built on inequality.
There must be freedom of association for farmers’ unions as well as farm workers’ unions, This would bring necessary participation and accountability to discussions throughout the agricultural supply chain.
Such modernized labor and business relations are essential if all parties are to understand each other, and to respond to market demands for food that is safe and whose supply is fairly obtained and secure. The goal must continue to be a sustainable and professional agricultural work force.
If manufacturers and retailers refuse to act boldly on their own, Congress could address these issues as it debates a “guest worker” program as part of immigration reform. Such a program could, and should, guarantee freedom of association.
Because of this nation’s failure to extend to farm workers this basic freedom, which has long been granted to other workers, we continue to leave behind hard-working people who are economically marginalized and unable to advocate their own best interests.
Baldemar Velasquez is president and founder of the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee.