05/05/2008

Migrant Workers at Bottom of Food Chain Face Abuse, Growing Economic Disparity

An April 16, 2008, article in The New York Times about the loot taken home last year by hedge fund managers, provides us with the starkest – and most obscene – evidence yet about the growing disparity between the rich and the poor in our country.

Topping the list was John Paulson, the founder of Paulson & Company. His payday: $3.7 billion.

Let's compare that to the pay and benefits of those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder – migrant tomato workers.

Their payday: about 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. That comes to about $50 for every two tons picked. On average, these workers earn less than $10,000 a year.

As for benefits, these farmworkers are denied the fundamental labor protections and benefits that most U.S. workers take for granted.

They were excluded from nearly all major federal labor laws passed during the New Deal, and many exemptions remain today.

They are not covered by workers' compensation laws in many states. They are not entitled to overtime pay under federal law. Some aren't even entitled to the federal minimum wage if they work on small farms or during short harvest seasons.

And these farmworkers have few options when they stand up for better treatment.

They are not protected by federal law against unfair labor practices when they try to collectively bargain for better wages or working conditions. Although a handful of states have passed statutes extending such protections to these workers, most have not.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. Department of Labor has sharply cut resources to investigate and bring enforcement actions against those who abuse farmworkers. Even federal legal programs serving migrant workers are prohibited from bringing class action lawsuits, the type of litigation most likely to bring far-reaching change.

But these workers often choose to remain silent.

The fear of being fired, blacklisted or deported keeps many from protesting deplorable work conditions.

As one tomato worker in Immokalee, Fla., told us, "If you say something, they fire you."

The Immokalee workers, like many other migrant workers, suffer chronic abuse for the pittance they earn. Their mornings on the job often start with unpaid "waiting time" where they sit idle, often for hours, until the dew dries and the tomatoes can be picked. If it happens to rain during the day, that creates more unpaid "waiting time." Both practices are violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

And when they are paid, their pay stubs often don't reflect the wages they are owed.

Hurt or sick laborers work in the fields because they don't have paid sick time. Meanwhile, healthy workers are exposed to pesticides and unsafe transportation to the fields. Forget about any health coverage.

When these seasonal workers are between jobs, they don't receive unemployment compensation. The lack of pay for a day, a week or even a month can be devastating for their families.

We don't hear much about these workers from the mainstream media, which seems obsessed with trivialities like whether a presidential candidate wears an American flag pin. But there are some members of Congress who are working to bring the plight of farmworkers to the public's attention. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont traveled to Immokalee to see first-hand what these tomato workers endure every day.

"In America today, we have a race to the bottom," said Sanders, who attended a recent Senate hearing on the subject. "What I saw in Immokalee is the bottom. And if we do not lift that bottom up, every worker in America is in danger."

The shameful treatment of farmworkers is only one example of what's wrong with an economy that is based on the lunatic ideology that any government regulation of business, any tax on the rich, or any effort to help working people is an affront to capitalism and will destroy our way of life. Both low- and middle-income workers are, in fact, scrambling to stay afloat in an economy that is sinking fast. Our financial institutions are failing because of greed. Home prices are falling. Gas prices and bankruptcies are rising. And, in one of the richest countries on the planet, we can't even provide health care for everybody.

Yet we continue to coddle the super-rich. They get every advantage, and often bear little of the pain when things go wrong. Corporate CEOs walk away with millions when their bad decisions cost small investors their retirement savings. Big financial firms receive government bailouts when their greed trumps good sense.

And hedge fund managers pay only a 15 percent tax rate on their billions in loot, while middle-class working families pay a rate up to 25 percent.

The next time you open a can of tomatoes, think about the migrant workers who picked them. And think about what it says about the morality of our economic system when one man – who makes money by betting against a rising economy – takes home a paycheck equal to that of 370,000 tomato workers who labor in the hot sun every day to put food on our tables.