Farm employers in the United States have withheld $76m in wages from 154,000 workers over the past 20 years, a new analysis of federal data has found, and wage theft and workplace safety issues in the agricultural sector are likely much, much worse.
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, according to an analysis published on Tuesday by the progressive-leaning think-tank Economic Policy Institute.
But those violations are likely just a fraction of the problem, says EPI, 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.
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, EPI’s director of immigration law and policy research and one of the report’s authors, told Al Jazeera.
That means “the violations that do get reported and investigated – which these data represent – are likely to be credible,” Costa explained. “But that also means that the violations that are investigated and detected are probably just the tip of the iceberg.”
There is also less money and staff to investigate violations than ever before. The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division’s budget has been slashed, and there is roughly only one investigator for every 175,000 workers, says EPI.
In 2019, there were just 780 investigators, fewer than nearly 50 years ago.
In general, US farmworkers struggle with some of the lowest wages in the country and suffer “an above-average rate of workplace injuries”, the report found – issues that have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.
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.
Farmworkers are vital to food supply chains. Their work, which cannot be done remotely, is deemed essential. But 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.
In addition, many workers live on the farms themselves, and inadequate or overcrowded housing – a longstanding problem in the industry – can increase the risk of COVID-19 infection.
EPI’s analysis found that 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,” he added.
Because 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.
He and his co-authors urged the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden to prioritise the health, safety and rights of farmworkers, including by upping the sanctions and penalties for violations to make sure employers do not just see them as the cost of doing business