Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Agricultural Hegemony and Farm Workers

          Patrick O'Donnell's recent posting of Marion Nestle's interview with a Western grower CEO and  attendant commentary, contributes greatly to understanding the irreconcilable differences between farm labor skills with the risk of agricultural enterprises facing decreasing labor shortages.  At this juncture, a brief reminder is further required and the goal of this post.

One avenue suggested is to increase immigration entry to meet growers' labor needs.  This trajectory however will not satisfy the laborers needed to cultivate and harvest the crops worth billions across the nation.  This results because federal law, agricultural policies and the agricultural hegemony that purports to seek protecting small owner operations are skewed to facilitate large scale agricultural industries.

In contrast, attempts to amend or revise federal law to protect workers are met with the unmitigated force of agricultural lobbyists, political representatives of agriculture dominated states, and a host of other political actors surging against the proposed legislation.

For example, the Department of Labor (DOL) ignited a firestorm when it sought changing the Fair Labor Standards Act to protect children employed in agriculture.  The inherent systemic danger of farm employment necessitated the proposed changes.   With the full force of Hurricane Katrina, the  agricultural industry without haste rejected the proposed "Child Labor Regulations" (CLR).  The CLR would have obligated imposed standards and would have shifted the agricultural norms of employing youth in agriculture without regard to the dangers they confront.  In contrast, an ocean of lobbying, political jockeying during a presidential race, opposition from governors of agricultural states and a host of others, shifted the intent and purpose of the CLR with misrepresentations.  This oppositional army campaigned the media to skew the CLR as intruding on "family relationships" and "small family farm" operations.  One principal argument against the CLR further encompassed the notion that farm work grants children necessary discipline and beneficial working benefits.

It is not difficult to wonder how the opposing forces could reconcile their assertions with the families of Jade Garza and Hannah Kendall.  Both fourteen-year-olds, Jade and Hannah, joined an army of youth to detassel corn.  Their goal was to save money for school supplies and clothing.  Instead Jade and Hannah identified as the best of friends met their untimely deaths.  During this regional "summer rite of passage" the two girls were killed "after they came in contact with irrigation equipment or a nearby puddle conducting high voltage."  The girls worked for Monsanto Corp., through a labor contractor.

Area teachers and others recruit youth to satisfy the need for cheap labor contingent on parents giving their permission. Nothing however is provided on the forms as to the inherent dangers employment in agriculture entails.  The legal relationship moreover between labor contractors and employees remains murky with case law exemptions that distance the employer of the contractor from workers in the event of accidents or deaths.

The CLR provides but one example seeking to change agricultural norms against the dire working conditions and plight of youth and children in the fields.  Yet not unlike other protective legislative attempts, an unrelenting backlash further resulted in political representatives introducing their own version of protecting small farmers.  Reinforcing their version also included a clause that disallowed DOL Secretary Hilda Solis from re-introducing further youth related measures.  In its totality, this war against protecting children caused the DOL to retreat from its first attempt to substantively change the FLSA since the 1970s.

Outside of deaths and injuries, the environment also imposes its own type of hardship from illnesses specific to the crops harvested, intense heat, and distance from water, rest breaks or other forms of relief.  Pesticides and herbicides and other dangers also instigate their own brand of toxicity and illnesses in the workplace. The grueling nature of cultivating and harvesting crops thereby exacts a tremendous realm of body injuries and at times deaths of workers in the fields.  Yet repeatedly decade after decade federal law and agricultural policies fail them.

Neither increased mechanization nor the reliance on economies of scale or even enlarged immigration entries of farm laborers will protect farmers. In exchange, placing state and federal agricultural economies at risk.  New trajectories and legal compromises that escape the hegemony of agricultural employment are thereby obligated.

If and whenever new protective legislation is introduced to protect workers and youth a new trajectory is required to counter the lies, deceit and false constructs so adhered to within the agricultural sector.  Specifically the regulatory agency should require objective and empirical primary evidence to test the generalized misrepresentations that perpetuate agricultural false norms.

Notwithstanding the false norms that dominant federal law, agricultural operations need farmworkers or risk economic ruin.  Farmworkers require improved terms and conditions of employment even against the false norms that dominate federal law agricultural operations and the political zeitgeist of the times. This template accordingly signals it is beyond time to change federal law to not only protect workers from unsavory working conditions but to prevent crops from rotting in the fields.

1.  Child Labor Regulations, Orders and Statements of Interpretations, 76 Fed. Reg. 54386 (proposed Sept. 2, 2011).
2.  Preserving America's Family Farms Act, H.R. 4157, 112th Cong. (2012).
3.  For further resources see Guadalupe T. Luna, Unsavory Associations--Placing Migrant Children in Harm's Way: The Withdrawal of Child Labor Rules from the Fair Labor Standards Act, 16 St. Mary's Law Review on Race and Social Justice, (2014).


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