In general, US farmworkers struggle with some of the lowest wages in the country and suffer an above-average rate of workplace injuries. Because many are either undocumented immigrants or in the country on temporary work visas, they do not have access to US social safety nets like health insurance, unemployment benefits or stimulus cheques.
The US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division conducted more than 31,000 investigations on US farms between fiscal years 2000 and 2019 and levied $63m in civil penalties for workplace violations. Those violations are likely just a fraction of the problem because the Labor Department only investigates about 100 of the US’s 107,000 farm employers every month – which means there is just a 1.1 percent chance that any one of them will be investigated in any given year.
Farm employers in the United States have withheld $76m in wages from 154,000 workers over the past 20 years and wage theft and workplace safety issues in the agricultural sector are likely much, much worse.
Many more violations are likely never reported because the “majority of farmworkers lack an immigration status or have a precarious, temporary status, making them fearful of retaliation and deportation”, Daniel Costa, Economic Policy Institute’s director of immigration law and policy research and one of the report’s authors, told Al Jazeera. Costa explained. “But that also means that the violations that are investigated and detected are probably just the tip of the iceberg.”
Farm labour contractors – third-party agencies that recruit and staff workers for farms – are the worst offenders, accounting for some 25 percent of all detected federal wage and hour violations.
“Farms that rely on farm labour contractors are a textbook example of a ‘fissured’ workplace, where the relationship between the worker and the lead employer is fissured, or broken, via the use of a temp agency or subcontractor,” Costa said. "Research has shown that fissuring often results in lower wages for workers, in part because the farm labour contractor keeps a percentage of the wages earned by the workers, and farm operators do not provide the farmworkers who work on their farms with fringe benefits because they are employees of the contractor. ” Farm labour contractors already account for 14 percent of agricultural employment in the US and their use is rising, major policy change is needed to crack down on violators, Costa said.