Farmworkers and the History of U.S. Labor Law

Contributing Writer
Ryan Zinn

At the height of the Great Depression, workers in the United States organized and created huge momentum to obtain historic “New Deal” laws, including the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Both laws made significant improvements to legal protections for many U.S. workers, including the right to organize, collective bargaining, overtime pay, minimum wage laws and significant restrictions on child labor, among others.

Photo Credit: Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World

However, to enact these New Deal laws, including other historic economic and political reforms, the Roosevelt Administration was forced to compromise with powerful politicians and economic interests, including congressional representatives from the South. Farmworkers, among other sectors like domestic workers, were essentially excluded from the protections and benefits of the NLRA and the FLSA. Members of Congress in the South, and other states with strong agriculture production, sought to preserve the prevailing economic and social conditions of the day that maintained farmworkers in a state of poverty. The compromise essentially enshrined social and racial discrimination in agriculture, especially for Blacks in the South and for Latino and Asian farmworkers in the West.

The impact of these policies on the lives of farmworkers in the U.S., numbering over three million, has been devastating. Farmworkers regularly rank as one of the lowest-paid sectors, and farmwork is one of the most dangerous jobs. Farmworkers earn poverty wages, averaging approximately $18,000 per year, far below the federal poverty line for the average family in the U.S. Most farmworkers lack basic protections like workers’ compensation and disability insurance, as well as legal rights such as earning a minimum wage or joining a union to bargain collectively.

Child farmworkers are especially at risk. According to the Food Chain Workers Alliance, “Approximately 400,000 children are employed in agriculture in the United States. Loopholes in U.S. child labor laws do not protect the children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers the same as children that work in other industries. ” Thousands of children, as young as twelve years old, work long hours under dangerous conditions, including exposure to toxic pesticides. If farmworkers are the most vulnerable workers in the U.S., then child farmworkers are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

Farmworkers are often undocumented migrants, forced from their home communities by unjust trade policies. Undocumented farmworkers, numbering in the millions in the U.S., form the backbone of the food system but live in a state of constant fear of labor abuse and deportation. Agribusiness corporations often utilize labor contractors that knowingly hire undocumented workers in order to avoid paying minimum wages or implementing basic health and safety controls. When workers clamor for their rights, they are often fired, or even deported, with no protection under the law.

With few exceptions, like California, states have failed to create legislation safeguarding farmworkers or ensuring their right to organize, collectively bargain and unionize. Though the FLSA was amended in 1966 to make minor improvements related to minimum wage protections for some agriculture workers, farmworkers remain for the most part vulnerable and unprotected under federal law. For human rights violations to end in the fields, farmworkers must be protected under national legislation.

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