At the Labor Department, we think a lot about vulnerable populations – groups of people who lack the economic resources to protect themselves from exploitation – and in the U.S. there is probably no more vulnerable population than migrant farmworkers.
In my region beginning early in the calendar year, these workers start their annual trek from the south, following the agricultural seasons northward in search of steady work. Along the way, not only do they have to perform the hard work required in the fields, they have to deal with housing and transportation issues, not to mention providing education for their children and healthcare for themselves and their families.
It is a truism that people do not know where their food comes from. For example, did you know that most of the nation’s green beans in early spring come from farms in South Florida? As a WHD regional administrator it is my job to have the answer to this question, as well as many others that concern the agricultural trail, in order to protect migrant farmworkers.
And that’s why in early spring, our region sent a strike force to the Homestead, FL area to ensure that the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s field sanitation rules were being followed by growers and farm labor contractors.
We made sure our people had adequate training in the law and access to the resources of our Regional Office of the Solicitor should they need them. This type of interagency cooperation is a hallmark of our efforts to ensure that all the resources of the Labor Department are effectively utilized in the protection of migrant workers.
But that was not the start of our activities in agriculture this year. Before we ever entered the fields, Wage and Hour investigators contacted growers’ organizations to inform them of their responsibilities and solicit their cooperation in doing right by their temporary workers, whether they hire the employees directly or use farm labor contractors to supply the needed labor. Going forward, we plan to continue this effort as the workers move northward.
Our Tampa District Office generally visits the fields in that the area to enforce labor laws. Pre-harvest training for state monitor advocates and state agricultural specialists in Georgia has already occurred, and last week we met with growers and members of the North Carolina Blueberry Council in a pre-harvest season seminar to provide compliance information and answer questions. Since our Raleigh District Office increased both enforcement efforts and outreach to growers’ associations two years ago, violations in the blueberry fields have decreased dramatically. Last year, we increased our presence during the tomato harvest season in Western North Carolina, which is also paying dividends in ensuring workers are protected.
We are also reaching out to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction – Migrant Education Program, which provides children between the ages of 6 and 11 with educational opportunities while their parents work in the blueberry fields.
This two-pronged approach – meeting with agricultural employers and regularly visiting the fields – represents the U.S. Department of Labor’s, as well as my personal, commitment to protect the rights of these vulnerable low-wage workers whose labor is indispensible to all Americans.
Editor’s Note: The author, Oliver Peebles III is the Wage and Hour Division Regional Administrator in Atlanta.