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.