A History Lesson: Farmworkers Rights by Jacob Bies

A History Lesson: Farmworkers Rights

I’m sure I’m not the first to say that the Class of 2022 at law schools nationwide had a strange spring semester. In the midst of navigating classes via Zoom and adjusting to online exam schedules, the non-academic aspects of law school pressed on as well. I count myself among the lucky ones who had received a summer internship offer just before the pandemic measures really rolled out. Even luckier, my internship survived the restructuring and adaptations so many organizations underwent over the past few months, albeit in a modified, work-from-home form.

I’ve been clerking this summer with Legal Aid of Nebraska, in their Agricultural Workers Rights Program. “Our focus is on ensuring agricultural workers are paid what they are owed under the law; ensuring that their working conditions are safe; and addressing harassment and discrimination in the workplace.” The program has been a great fit for me, hitting on two areas of my areas of interest: labor/employment law and immigration law. While the program does not explicit tie in to immigration, the farmworkers it can serve span the whole spectrum of immigration statuses.

Aside from the legal research and client assistance experience I’ve been gaining, one of the most interesting thing I learned about is the background and history of federal labor protections for farmworkers. Much of the legislation and regulation relating to farmworker employment rights is specifically in relation to migrant farmworkers, such as those on H-2A visas. One of the major pieces of farmworker rights legislation is the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, oft referred to as AWPA. AWPA protects farmworkers regardless of immigration or visa status, as a means of protecting them from exploitation in one of the industries that can be rife with it.

AWPA was passed in 1983, in part to provide protections for farmworkers that were left out of the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA. The struggle to enshrine labor rights for farmworkers into law is rooted in the historical discrimination against those workers in America. In the early 20th century, the demographics of farmworkers were mostly African American sharecroppers in the South. As President Roosevelt worked to push through New Deal legislation, he needed the votes of southern Democrats, many of whom were opposed to the idea of paying minimum and overtime wages to their farmworkers and in-home staff. President Roosevelt bargained for their votes by excluding farmworkers from many of the benefits in the National Labor Relations Act, Social Security Act, and FLSA.

Over time, Congress and later administrations extended and amended portions of the acts to cover farmworkers. Until 1978, unemployment programs under the Social Security Act did not cover farmworkers, and even now they receive less support from the programs than any other worker group. Agricultural workers are still not allowed to collectively bargain under the National Labor Relations Act. The FLSA initially fully exempted agricultural workers from minimum wage, overtime, and child labor protections. In the latter half of the 1960s, agricultural

labor was phased into minimum wage provisions, but exemptions from overtime and child labor protections stand to this day.

Along with the legal developments, demographic developments in the field of agricultural labor occurred over the almost-century since the passage of New Deal legislation. Historically, and regardless of their demographics, farmworkers have been an oppressed class of workers. As New Deal legislation developed and was amended to better protect resident farmworkers and the civil rights movement secured rights for African-American workers, a logical conclusion would be that the historically African-American labor force received better treatment, pay and an increased quality of life in their work. Contrarily, developments in immigration policy lead the farmworker workforce to shift towards cheaper labor from immigrants, largely from Latin America, both legally, through federal work visa programs like H2-A, and illegally, through the labor of undocumented workers.

According to 2015-16 National Agricultural Workers Survey data released in 2018, 83% of all U.S. farmworkers are Latino, and 19% of them are migrants, meaning they travel over 75 miles from their normal place of residence in order to work for the season. When we consider only the crop workers, the number of migrants jumps to 42%.

The most striking statistics to me, and the ones I’ll wrap this up on, relate to the income of these workers. The mean and median annual income of crop workers falls between $17,500 and $19,999. 33% of crop workers fall below poverty guidelines. 43% used no public assistance programs, and oftentimes those in the 57% that did only reported usage by one family member.

As I spend my summer working with and on behalf of farmworkers, I keep the statistics and info I’ve written here in mind. It keeps me motivated and driven knowing that the reason many of the legal battles I contribute to fighting feel one sided is because of decades upon decades spent on shaping systems to make it feel as such. I decided to go to law school for the opportunity to fight for justice on behalf of those being exploited, and I am thankful that my summer internship has allowed me to do so even before I take the bar exam.

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