LatinaLista -- As Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) gets ready to step up their efforts targeting employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers, according to a plan that was recently leaked to the Texas Tribune and titled "Strategic Priorities for Fiscal Years 2010-2014," there is still one area that employers are acting with impunity when it comes to immigrant labor -- farmworkers.
A new report released today by Farmworker Justice and Oxfam America entitled
Weeding Out Abuses: Recommendations for a law-abiding farm labor system illustrates that the farm labor system is as broken as the immigration system. That they both deal with immigrants may be the common denominator.
According to the report, though this is the 21st Century, the men, women, and yes, children who pick this nation's fruits and vegetables are subjected to treatment and conditions more likely found in third-world countries than in the United States.
The abuses range from underpayment to "wage thefts," sexual harassment, physical abuse, the denial of water on the job or taking breaks, gender discrimination, inferior and dangerous housing for its workers, as well as, exposing workers to dangerous working conditions and not providing ample protection from onsite dangers for the workers or their families.
The list goes on.
The report's authors contend that the Department of Labor is not keeping up with these ongoing violations but can easily correct all these infractions and violations if they did one thing -- impose penalties on farmers who don't comply with fair treatment of their workers.
The Government Accountability Office reported in 2008 that DOL is not keeping track of how often it finds repeat or willful violations or whether or not penalties
were imposed for such violations. According to the report, "A study commissioned
by Wage and Hour Division of DOL showed that when employers are assessed
penalties, they are more likely to comply in the future [,] and other employers in
the same region--regardless of industry--are also more likely to comply."22 DOL
has been failing to use these and other tools that the law provides to obtain compliance
with employment laws.
Of course, this report did not sit well with the current Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis. In a statement issued after the release of today's report, she said:
"This report makes clear that farmworkers face a number of challenges and that for too long the federal government has not taken the steps necessary to empower and protect these workers. When I came into office, I immediately began to change the way the Department of Labor approaches farmworker issues.
"As secretary of labor, I have made a priority of ensuring farmworkers are paid a fair wage, provided safe and healthy working conditions and given the opportunity to update their job skills. We've changed regulations, put more investigators in the field, made clear we won't stand for the exploitation of children in the fields and refocused our efforts on behalf of this important community.
"While I'm very proud of what the Obama administration has accomplished on behalf of farmworkers in the last year, I look forward to continuing to work with the farmworker community on ways to protect the wages, safety and health of this important part of America's labor force."
The statement was accompanied by a laundry list of DOL regulatory accomplishments that look good on paper but beg the questions: Who is enforcing them? How often? Who are the violators? To what extent is the violation? What is the penalty for the violation? How often is the same violation repeated?
All these accomplishments on behalf of farmworkers mean nothing if the workers aren't reaping the benefits. And from some of the stories shared in the report, the accomplishments are still nothing but words on paper.
Guillermo Cruz has worked in US agriculture for 22 years and has harvested all the major food crops in California's Central Valley. He said it's common for employers to cut corners and skimp on necessities, such as bathrooms and water out in the fields. "There were many of us who never said anything because we were afraid of losing our jobs. It was just something you had to put up with."
Francisco Duarte has lived for 40 years in San Luis Rio Colorado, a small city in the state of Sonora, Mexico, on the US-Mexico border. Legally permitted to work in both countries, he often crosses the border to work in Arizona agriculture, mostly picking citrus. Francisco's employers shorted him on hours worked, however. "We'd work eight hours, they'd write down we worked five or six,"
Patricia remembers the exact date that she escaped the most hellish period of her life: October 31, 2008. That was the night she and another farmworker fled a North Carolina labor camp at 4 o'clock in the morning with little more than a backpack filled with clothes. It was the end of a five-year nightmare of hard manual labor, working for abusive labor contractors who kept their workers isolated and indebted in squalid labor camps in North Carolina and Florida.
The stories go on and on. No telling how many more stories are waiting to be told but fear of losing their meager jobs in a bad economy keep most people's mouths shut.
It's time for accountability, action, results and justice. It can't start in the fields. It has to start in the halls of government -- where there's a bathroom, water fountain and cool air on every floor.