It’s an occurrence that happens every morning. Hundreds of migrant farm laborers line up in a parking lot at 5:30 a.m. to see if they will be selected to work for the day. If workers are not picked, they are not paid. If it rains while workers are on the job, they are sent out of the fields and are not paid for those hours. For those selected, they will spend a vast majority of their day hauling hundreds of heavy buckets of fruits and vegetables so that they can hope to bring home enough money to live below the poverty line.
Rep. Richard Nugent (R-FL), however, thinks that migrant farm workers are not unfairly treated because they can, in theory, be paid well. In a winding speech that focused on the importance of border security, Nugent said that farm laborers are grateful for the opportunity to potentially make more than the federal minimum wage:
In Florida, cantaloupes, tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, everything you and I like to purchase is picked by human hand.
And I heard this thing about paying them flat wage. Workers in the field, they get minimum wage. Baseline is minimum wage if they pick five flats or six flats for like minimum wage. Most workers though because they get paid by the flat will wind up bringing home $14 to $16 an hour because A) from what I’m hearing, they’re really hard workers. And they realize the harder they work, the more money they bring home for their families. And they’re not opposed to doing it.
So when you hear people say well you know, they’re being abused, that’s just not so. Now I’ve talked to them: A) They’re happy for the opportunity. B) They can make a lot of money that a lot of our folks won’t do. So bordering security and enforcement has got to be our top priority. And so what the House is looking from this perspective– how do you eat a whale, just one bite at a time.
Listen to it starting at the 5:44 mark.
Contrary to Nugent’s remarks, migrant farmers are exposed to a litany of work abuse violations that they are too afraid to report like harsh weather, wage theft, and direct pesticide use. In Nugent’s state of Florida, workers were found by a federal grand jury to be working in conditions tantamount to slavery.
As for the supposed good pay, migrant farm laborers earn nowhere near enough to live above the poverty line– the annual median income is between $2,500 to $5,000 with three-fourths earning less than $10,000. Small farms are exempt from the minimum wage and overtime requirements. In 2007, tomato harvesters were paid a piece-rate of 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket, a wage that hasn’t been raised in twenty years. A typical work day yields two tons of tomatoes, which works out to a pre-taxed rate of $56.25 for a day’s worth of work. That figure does not include overtime pay nor a day of rest.
One form of workplace abuse comes from pesticide exposure. The rules established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) governing pesticide use have not been updated in 20 years, which may explain why there are still 10,000 to 20,000 annual pesticide poisoning cases. Another form comes from sexual abuse. It wasn’t until 2004 that the first federal sexual harassment lawsuit against a grower reached a trial and later, a settlement of $800,000 for one female farm laborer who was raped.
Even if Nugent was off the mark with his analysis of migrant farm laborers, he did get one thing right– American workers are still unwilling to do farm work. Even when they are offered pay above minimum wage, almost all American workers abruptly quit before the season is over, if not during the first day.