Florida farmworkers' wages: Pick 32 pounds of tomatoes, earn 50 cents, and Senators admit they know it

Leonel Perez put a human face on contingent workers in the U.S., during an interview with HuffPost Live's Jacob Soboroff.  Perez is an immigrant farm worker from Imokolee, Florida.  He explains the piece rate for picking tomatoes in the fields is about 50 cents for 32 pounds, a rate that hasn't changed in over 50 years.  It's a poverty wage for an individual supporting himself, and worse yet for a farm worker who's trying to support a family.

The HuffPost interview also features University of Maryland law professor Rena Steinzor.  She's president of the not-for-profit Center for Progressive Reform, which released last month the report "At the Company's Mercy" about contracted labor in the U.S.  Agriculture is one industry profiled in the report.  (Liz Borkowski wrote last week about another group of contingent workers, hotel housekeepers, and also referred to CPR's report.)

As reported in December 2012 by HuffPost's Jason Cherkis, a coalition of 28 nonprofit legal and social services organizations filed a complaint with the United Nation's alleging violations of human rights law in the U.S. agricultural industry.  Among other complaints, they describe a "slave-master relationship" between U.S. growers and migrant workers.  That abuse and other injustices are the result of gross deficiencies in U.S. labor laws and enforcement, from the H-2A temporary agricultural VISA program, to exemptions of farm workers from rights to minimum wage, overtime and collective bargaining.

But maybe that 50 cent piece rate for tomatoes will become a thing of the past if lawmakers' promises of immigration reform come true.  The bipartisan framework for immigration reform presented last week by U.S. Senators Chuck Shumer (D-NY), John McCain (R-AZ), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) acknowledged the special situation for farm workers.

"... [they] have been performing very important and difficult work to maintain America's food supply while earning subsistence wages."

I added the emphasis.  This acknowledgement by U.S. Senators that many farm workers in the U.S. earn subsistence wages struck me as particularly noteworthy.  Here, in a concise framework for immigration reform legislation----an issue that has been a non-starter for years---is an acknowledgement that our laws have allowed many agricultural employers to abuse farm workers.  I think that's pretty remarkable.

The bi-partisan group of Senators agreed on four "basic legislative pillars," addressing highly controversial matters: providing a path to citizenship, ensuring border security, and imposing penalties on employers who hire undocumented workers.  Standing equal with these principles is "Admitting new workers and protecting workers' rights."

Their framework indicates there will be a "new agricultural worker program."   I hope that means one that ensures farm workers----whether citizens, on the path to citizenship, or documented workers---are paid a living wage, are housed in clean and safe residences, and are provided the same labor rights as individuals who don't work in agriculture.

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Their are injustices such as this going on everywhere. Think of the women in the middle east or china who work fourteen hours a day, six to seven days a week, and make only six dollars a week. U.S. companies are having their products made from countries such as China because they can pay them less and make a larger profit. It seems a lot of people are greedy and its hurting our farmworkers and people such as factory workers overseas.

But at the same time, farmers aren't generally known for being huge corporate fatcats. Many of them are struggling to get by, too, and increasing wages for workers can mean the difference between the farm staying open or not.

Crackdowns on illegal immigrants have historically led to crops left on the field. For instance,
(Though you can find many more examples, such as after Mississippi's recent crackdown).

So, I favor more open immigration and lower minimum wages. Heck, thousands of immigrants are coming to this country to help with agricultural work because it's better than what's available in their home countries - why would you want to take those jobs away from them?

By Windchasers (not verified) on 05 Feb 2013 #permalink

If all agricultural employers were required to pay a living wage to farm workers, the employers would raise their prices to cover the additional cost. The buyers---including the huge corporate fatcats---will absorb that cost and forego profit, or more likely, pass that cost onto consumers.

The last time grain prices went up sharply, there were complaints heard 'round the world, and food riots across SE Asia.
Higher prices on foods - particularly on non-staple vegetables and fruits - will decrease consumption of the same. Many poor people in America already can't afford these, so I can't see that higher prices will help us as a country.

And reduced consumption means fewer farms and fewer farm jobs for immigrants who desperately need the money. Note that a "living wage" is a bit of an amorphous idea, as someone who comes here and works for farm wages is probably living better than she/he was back home.

Trade has increased human economic prosperity time and again. As long as two people are trading of their own free will - no coercion or tricks - then they are probably better judges than I of what's best for them, and I have to admit that they should be free to trade if they want to.
So if an immigrant wants to come here and work for $2/hour, ask yourself - why? If he's better off working here than back at home, and local consumers *want* the lower priced vegetables and fruits, who's really worse off?

PS - There is great potential for abuse from the employers. However, much of that abuse comes in the form of "do your job badly and I'll see you deported". We can't stop employee abuse if the employees run from the people we've hired to help them.
You also see this with H1-B visas, which are company-sponsored visas that let an immigrant come and work there. With these, the company can hold an axe over the employee's head, saying "do your work right and at these wages, or we won't renew your visa and you'll have to leave".
So, the best thing we can do about employee abuse is to relax immigration laws.

By Windchasers (not verified) on 05 Feb 2013 #permalink