Pickers, Immigrants, and the Exploitation of Farm Workers

 New Orleans  A lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center named Jim Knoepp found a way to get my attention when he was quoted in a story about potential employment discrimination between United States workers and immigrant farm labors, saying, “Think of trash collection.  That’s not very appealing, either.  But if you offer decent wage and conditions, people do it.”  He’s right, you know.  Our union, Local 100 of the United Labor Unions, has represented hoppers, the laborers on the back of garbage trucks in New Orleans and “gunslingers” as they are called in Dallas for 15 years and moved the wages from minimum to almost twice that during that period.  It’s a hard job, but not as hard as it was, and we have some men who have been on the trucks for years.

            Knoepp made the point while talking about an employment discrimination lawsuit filed by African-American workers against big onion growers around Vidalia, Georgia where 10,000 H-2A visa holders, largely from Mexico, are working.  The local workers claim that the visa holding immigrant workers are given hiring preference, which is of course illegal.

            A quote by an operations manager, Jon Schwalls, from Southern Valley offers prima facie evidence virtually proving the point:

“When Jose gets on the bus to come here from Mexico he is committed to the work,” he said. “It’s like going into the military. He leaves his family at home. The work is hard, but he’s ready. A domestic wants to know: What’s the pay? What are the conditions? In these communities, I am sorry to say, there are no fathers at home, no role models for hard work. They want rewards without input.”

Ironically, Southern Valley has already entered into a consent decree negotiated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and agreed to make changes.  As part of the consent decree, Southern Valley has to provide daily bus transportation and prove that it is training and retraining Americans.  So far the federal government is not impressed, and the company is whining about the cost.  One of the changes must NOT have been to stop being racist about both African-Americans and Latinos.

Dawson Morton, a lawyer with Georgia Legal Services hits the nail on the head:

“I am not arguing that agricultural work is a good job, I am arguing that it could be a better job. If you want experienced people, train them. Just because people are easier to supervise, agricultural employers shouldn’t be able to import them. It is not true that Americans don’t want the work. What the farmers are really saying is that blacks just don’t want to work.”

Cindy Hahamovitch, an expert on guest worker programs, pointed out that in the last 40 years farm labor employment flipped from 2/3rds American and to 1/3rd foreign in the 1970’s to 1/3rd local and 2/3rds immigrant by the 1980’s to almost exclusively foreign now.  As Knoepp pointed out “wages have stagnated and conditions have deteriorated.”  The early comment from the farm manager makes it clear that they believe that they can exploit the workers at will.  The lawyers and common sense tells anyone who might care that this is a stacked deck designed to lower wages and perpetuate horrid living and working conditions to such a degree that only workers with no other choices – and a roundtrip ticket back to their home countries – will do it.

This isn’t about immigration or immigration reform, just plain old worker exploitation almost as old as the dirt in the ground where all of these workers labor or at least try to do so.

Farm Workers Audio Blog


Ripping off Mexican & Caribbean Migrant Workers in Canada

Buenocurrency-transfer-compareds Aires One of the flash points in the USA immigration reform debate continues to be over the demand from farmers for help in their fields from migrant agricultural workers.  Recently  they left the Republican (and Obama Administration) consensus in droves as US-farmer organizations and Congresspeople bridled at the fact that employers, i.e. farmers, would have to pay steep fines for hiring undocumented workers.  The so-called bracero program has long been out of business in the US, which used to bring up seasonal workers from Mexico into the fields of California, Texas, and Arizona, and from the Caribbean to help in tobacco, cranberry, and other harvests in the Northeastern states.

ACORN International crack researchers led by Carleton University (Ottawa) volunteer, Amanda Sullivan, and ramroded by ACORN International and Edinburgh University (Scotland) super-summer intern, Melanie Craxton, stumbled onto a huge program though in Canada while researching remittance ripoffs as part of ACORN International and its federated partners on-going Remittance Justice Campaign (www.remittancejustice.org).   The Canadian SAWP is not an armed strike team, but 20,000 migrant workers from Mexico and the Caribbean Islands who are recruited through bi-national agreements and shipped up to the fields of Canada, largely in British Columbia and southern Ontario, as part of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.  Needless to say conditions are regularly reported as substandard and exploitive by our long-time partners, the UFCW and its agricultural workers organizing program which has been in the fields for years with these workers.

In fact the Canadian government extracts a 25% of wages share for taxes and the like which will never benefit these workers who will return home after a maximum of eight (8) months in the field.  Neither does the Canadian government seem to care much about how much money they actually go home with even though ostensibly that is one of the goals of this cooperative labor exchange.  The workers are in fact even chosen according to the SAWP criteria because they have stable families, and that means invariably they send significant remittances (about 50% of wages while in Canada) back home to their families.

The money transfer organizations of choice according to our researchers interviews are Western Union and a smaller, somewhat cheaper company called Vigo.  Either way a huge chunk of their checks are extracted by these MTOs, way over the 5% maximum demand that ACORN International has made as part of the Remittance Justice Campaign and that Canada as part of the G-8 has claimed to adopt as a world standard.

Talking to SAWP representatives though was like visiting Mars.  Yes, Canada collected its taxes.  Yes, the migrant workers made remittances home.  No, the governmental representatives had no idea how much was extracted by the MTOs of the checks, despite these bi-national agreements with Mexico and Caribbean countries.  It is impossible to escape the core immorality, even venality, of this predatory governmental operation.  The Canadian government gets migrant help for its agricultural enterprises, profits from taxes that can’t benefit the workers, and then turns a blind eye as predatory fees are extracted from the laborers before they return home with what little is left.

ACORN International and its federated partners like ACORN Canada, ACORN Mexico, and ACORN Dominican Republic, have stumbled onto a scandal and are busily preparing demands to force immediate change in these practices along the lines we have continued to make in recent months for cost caps and desperately needed regulations.  Without a doubt this is an outrage that demands the authorities finally listen and act!