Virtually every American relies on the labor of undocumented immigrants who toil in the fields, in the slaughterhouses and in the processing factories where our food is produced and packaged. As this report demonstrates, immigrant women who provide this backbreaking labor are the most vulnerable workers in our country.
For them, workplace exploitation is the rule — not the exception.
The women interviewed for this report tell remarkably similar stories of wage theft, sexual harassment, pesticide poisoning, unsafe working conditions and other abuses. Working for poverty wages, they’re ineligible for most government programs that benefit the poor. They typically receive no overtime pay, health care coverage, sick or vacation time, unemployment compensation, retirement plans or other job benefits that most Americans take for granted. Many farmworkers have no access to adequate water or shade to ward off heat stroke in broiling-hot fields. Many have no clean toilets or hand-washing facilities in the fields. They’re unable to complain or seek legal remedies for employer abuses. And they live in constant fear of being detected and seeing their families broken apart.
Despite our dependence on these undocumented workers, we allow this shameful exploitation to continue. It is our responsibility to stop it.
It’s not enough to boycott a particular product or a particular grocery chain — because the abuses are too widespread. It’s not enough to buy local or organic products — because there is simply no reason to conclude that local and organic growers treat their workers any better.
The only way to bring a measure of fairness to the system — to truly improve the living and working conditions for immigrant women — is to enact wholesale reforms at the federal level. These include a path to citizenship for the undocumented workers who are feeding our country. They also must include far stronger worker protections — for all workers, whether they labor in the field or in the factory, and whether they have legal status or not.
Here are our specific policy recommendations:
- Enact comprehensive immigration reforms that provide a path to earned legalization for undocumented immigrants. A bill pending before Congress, known as AgJOBS, would create a path to legalization for many farmworkers. It’s a good start, and Congress should pass it.
- Enact legislation to overturn Hoffman Plastics Compound, Inc. v. NLRB, 535 U.S. 137 (2002). That decision has created a perverse incentive for employers to hire undocumented workers, because they believe those workers will not complain and will not be able to exercise a legal remedy to address exploitative labor practices.
- End special exemptions from labor rules for agricultural employers. There is no justification for the continued agricultural exceptionalism codified in our laws; it is clearly a legacy of discrimination and racism, and a product of political power wielded by growers. Congress alone has the authority to change many of those laws. Examples:
- Many farmworkers are excluded from federal minimum wage laws and other labor protections — including the right to overtime pay for workers who labor more than 40 hours per week.
- Farmworkers are not protected from retaliation under federal law when engaged in labor organizing.
- Farmworkers are not entitled to receive attorney fees under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, the principal federal law protecting farmworkers. Attorney fee awards should be available so that exploited farmworkers can attract private attorneys to handle their cases.
- Farmworkers on smaller farms do not have access to toilets, hand-washing facilities and drinking water. Providing these essentials would greatly limit the spread of disease and protect human dignity.
Federal agencies also have a critical role to play in protecting workers, but many have failed to live up to their mission. Every agency with a role in protecting farmworkers should create a protocol for U visa certification to ensure that victims of crime can come forward to report abuse without repercussions. Agencies also should ensure that they have culturally competent staff members and use best practices for interpretation.
The following actions are particular urgent.
The Department of Homeland Security must do a better job helping to protect crime victims. It must:
- Issue guidance memoranda and regulations to protect crime victims in communities that have 287(g), Safe Communities or other enforcement agreements with the agency.
- Issue guidance to make clear that prosecutors and other law enforcement agencies may not engage in enforcement actions against immigrant crime victims when they come forward to report crimes.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration must do a better job keeping workers safe on the job. It must:
- End discrimination against farmworkers by ensuring that all relevant standards applicable to other workers (such as whistleblower protection, fall protection and protection against unguarded machinery) also apply to farmworkers.
- Increase fines against abusive employers so that they are deterred from further violations.
- Create strict rules related to the speed at which poultry- and meat-processing lines operate. Line speed is the single greatest cause of injuries in these plants, and there are currently no regulations that address it.
The U.S. Department of Labor must do a better job ensuring workers are paid their lawful wages. It must:
- Implement more strategic initiatives to investigate wage theft against low-wage immigrant workers, prioritizing investigations into industries that employ large numbers of women.
- Seek full recovery and steeper penalties against employers who exploit low-wage immigrant workers.
- Enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) to protect workers who speak out about employer abuses.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission must do a better job protecting women workers from discrimination on the job. It must:
- Reissue guidance memoranda stating that undocumented workers are protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- Prioritize enforcement of cases involving discrimination against immigrant women.
States, too, play a critical role in protecting vulnerable workers. All states must:
- Ensure that all farmworkers are covered by state workers’ compensation laws. Currently, workers’ compensation is not available to many injured farmworkers due to state laws that exclude or discriminate against farm work, even though farmworkers cannot afford health care or health insurance and suffer injuries at higher rates than almost all other workers.
- Repeal state laws that discriminate against farmworkers. Currently, farmworkers are exempt from many state minimum wage and other laws protecting workers.
Not much has changed in the 50 years since Edward R. Murrow exposed the plight of migrant workers in the documentary “Harvest of Shame.” What has changed is that the majority of farmworkers are now undocumented immigrants, making them in many ways even more vulnerable to exploitation. As Murrow said, they have the strength to harvest our fruits and vegetables but no power to influence the laws and regulations that can improve their lives. That part is up to us — the beneficiaries of their labor.