Our federal elected officials finally seem to be getting serious about passing much-needed comprehensive immigration reform in Washington, D.C. That’s good. It is also important to note there’s a very important immigrant worker rights issue that needs to be addressed right here and right now in rural Minnesota. No new laws need to be passed, but existing wage and hour laws do need to be understood, respected and followed.
Increasingly known as “wage theft,” we have heard, in particular, about workers on large-scale dairy and hog farms in Minnesota not receiving full compensation according to the law. As our state’s primary supplier of production agriculture information, the University of Minnesota and U of M Extension must play a key role in making sure this problem is addressed.
The time to act is now. In recent years, Centro Campesino (the Farmworker Center), the Land Stewardship Project and the Latino Economic Development Center each have received multiple reports from immigrant workers of unjust and illegal labor practices on some of the largest farms in the state. Each report we receive begs the question: Does industrial-scale livestock production create a climate that is ripe for the exploitation of immigrant farm labor?
Keep in mind that a lot of people’s lives are affected by this issue. A Minnesota farm group representative told Agri News this week that, “If we were to remove all the immigrant labor in Minnesota, half of the cows would not get milked tonight.”
While we don’t know for certain how widespread labor abuses are, there are enough reports coming in to indicate there is a significant number of troubling incidents. Complaints have included:
• Failure to pay overtime to hourly employees.
• Docking of wages for damage to equipment or facilities.
• Failure to provide final paycheck after dismissal or resignation.
• Employers developing and implementing their own personnel policies that are not in compliance with the law.
• Employees being let go after an injury is reported.
• Employers failing to inform injured employees of workers’ compensation benefits.
When workers are being taken advantage of on factory farms, it not only hurts the workers themselves, but it puts at a competitive disadvantage those farms that are abiding by the law. In addition, when these practices are common, it serves to lower the wages of all workers in the rural community, no matter where they are employed.
Two legal cases came to light in the last few weeks that centered on two of the largest industrial farms in southeast Minnesota not paying required overtime wages to their hourly workers. When combined together, these farms owed their workers $100,000 in back wages. They were forced to pay up only after intervention by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, and in one case, the Minnesota state court system as well.
We hope that cases like these are the exception and not the rule. When they surface, they give a black eye to agriculture.
In truth, we don’t know how prevalent these cases of wage theft are, only that we’ve heard enough similar stories to know that these are certainly not isolated cases. That’s why we need some University-level research and education on the treatment and compensation of farm workers. The same investment in agricultural research that’s been applied to crops, livestock, machinery, farm finances, animal housing and feed now needs to be devoted to the issue of farm labor.
It is important to note that labor rights laws apply to workers regardless of their legal status. Yes, even though undocumented workers may be fearful of reporting problems at work for fear of being fired or singled out for deportation, worker protections still apply to them.
Our three organizations have made three clear requests of the University and Extension:
• Expand and improve education for livestock farm employers about the employer’s obligations to know and comply with labor rights laws.
• Conduct research within immigrant worker communities, in conjunction with Latino community groups, about the extent of labor violations on large-scale hog and dairy farms.
• Inform agricultural workers throughout the state of their rights.
The University and Extension have critical roles to play. They need to specifically acknowledge and address the issue of wage theft and other violations of worker rights occurring on farms in the state. They must understand that righting these unfair labor practices benefits workers, farm owners and rural communities. And they need to invest deeply in the research and education necessary to make certain that the issue of workplace injustice will not be tolerated, ignored or tacitly accepted.
We certainly expect and hope that the U of M and Extension will fulfill this critical need in our rural communities. These vital public institutions have the opportunity to help ensure that agriculture truly is healthy and just for all.
Ernesto Velez Bustos is executive director of Centro Campesino and Doug Nopar is a Land Stewardship Project organizer.