Pickers, Immigrants, and the Exploitation of Farm Workers

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice Ideas and Issues Immigration Reform

 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.

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