South's farm labor situation changing

To better understand the future of farm labor in the South, it's helpful to review its history, dating back to the early 1960s and one very influential television program. The program, Edward R. Murrow's “Harvest of Shame,” forever changed the public's image of farm labor throughout the United States.

“This television program was the most significant labor event of its time,” says Dan Bremer, a Georgia labor consultant. “The program featured the treatment of tomato pickers in Florida, and it was a major media event. By 1963, legislation was enacted to address the issues brought to light by ‘Harvest of Shame.’”

Bremer spoke about agricultural labor in 2003 and beyond at the Deep South Fruit and Vegetable Conference held recently in Biloxi, Miss.

Between 1963 and 1975, says Bremer, farm labor was regulated by the U.S. Department of Labor and enforced by the Employment Training Division.

“They did absolutely nothing to enforce the law that was written in 1963 — the Farm Labor Contractor Registration Act. This law talked about hiring, transporting and paying workers. But from 1960 to 1975, Murrow's ‘Harvest of Shame’ had not changed significantly. In 1975, enforcement of the law was moved to the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor,” he says.

The majority of farm workers in the South in the 1960s were local workers, says Bremer. “Local workers once were the best source of farm labor in the South. They were skilled, and they came when you needed them. Many of them would work in town for most of the year. But they came out to the farm when you needed workers, and they knew how to harvest crops. When they were finished with harvest, they would return to work in town.

“High school students also were a good source of farm labor during this time. In some pockets of the South today, high school students still come out to the farm and work. Another source of labor was the agricultural migrant workers — the ones who arrived in buses and vans.”

Along about 1985, local workers available for farm labor became virtually non-existent, says Bremer.

“Local workers all had moved to town, working at Wal-Mart or in factories — anywhere but on the farm. And there were no incentives for these workers to go back to the farm. High school kids no longer needed to work on the farm — mom and dad gave them all the money they needed. So, you were left with the buses and vans full of migrant workers, and they were all illegal.”

In 1985, about 90 percent of these workers were illegal aliens, notes Bremer, and in 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act.

“Congress realized that most every worker on the farm was illegal, and it wouldn't be practical to pick up everyone who was illegal. So the I-9 law was enacted, and farmers were told they had to get an I-9 form on every worker. Farmers didn't realize what a huge break they were given with this I-9 law. As long as you had an I-9, you were legal. It didn't matter if that worker was totally illegal, you were off the hook.

“Most thought this law was a burden to employers, but it was the exact opposite. The I-9 absolved you of all liability, as long as you had a document from each worker stating that they were supposed to be here. As an employer, take whatever they give you. Don't turn anyone away. Turning them away means that you looked at them and decided they were illegal aliens. Take everything they give you — mark it down and put them to work.”

Amnesty was granted to illegal farm workers in 1986, and the program worked very well for about one year, says Bremer.

“After about a year, these workers got jobs in town. But the H2A and H2B programs were part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. You could bring in workers if you were a farmer and were involved in seasonal activity. So everything was pretty good for farmers in 1986.”

By 1992, the amnesty workers were gone, he says, and falsely documented workers were the only ones remaining. Ninety-six percent of farm workers in the United States in the 1990s were illegal aliens, he adds.

“Local workers and high school workers were long gone by the 1990s. And in 1995, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) decided it would be a good idea to go out to the farms and businesses and remove all illegal aliens.”

Today, says Bremer, there still are no local or high school workers, and there aren't as many workers in vans and buses because it's too conspicuous, and it's too difficult to cross into the United States. The INS, he says, will stop these buses and vans and send them back to Mexico.

“We now have a few ‘stray’ workers here and there. They'll go up north to pick apples, and then they'll come down South in the spring to do your work.”

In 2003, the INS won't be conducting many raids in search of illegal aliens, he continues. The INS currently is focusing more on criminal activity, he says.

“Make sure your I-9s are in good shape. And beware if someone drives up in a van and offers to sell workers to you for $600 each. If you hire those workers, and you know they're illegal, you have committed a felony in the United States. And the INS is looking for those kinds of situations.”

In 2003, the INS shouldn't be a problem for most farmers, contends Bremer. “In fact, I don't believe the government is going to be your problem. The FBI has been doing some labor cases. Four labor contractors now are in jail in Florida charged with slavery. The current law says that you can be held jointly responsible for everything these labor contractors do, so you may want to think about that. The FBI has said the agricultural industry is complicit in these labor cases.”

Farm labor contractors are the predominant method of providing farm labor today, says Bremer, and 96 percent of the farm workforce continues to be illegal.

It's important, he says, that farmers know who they are dealing with when it comes to farm labor. “If a farm labor contractor comes onto your farm, make sure he is registered as a farm labor contractor. And pay the workers yourself. You can't be held liable for the actions of a farm labor contractor if you pay the workers yourself. Don't give a wad of money to a labor contractor. You don't have any idea what they'll do with it.”

If the IRS sends you a letter stating that a worker's employee identification number doesn't match his Social Security name and number, send a letter to the worker informing him of the situation, advises Bremer. Writing a letter to the employee covers your liability, he says.

“At the end of the year, when you get out the W-2 forms, write another letter to the worker telling him to please change or correct the discrepancy. If you get a letter from the Social Security Administration, send them a copy of your letter.

“Beginning in 2003, the IRS will compare employee identification numbers with W-2s on file, and they'll fine employers $50 per mistake. But if you have proof that you've informed the worker of the discrepancy, you'll be covered.”

Also likely to be an issue in 2003 is an increase in the minimum wage, says Bremer. “The Republicans are in charge, and if they don't raise the minimum wage, it'll become a campaign issue. By the end of 2003, look for the minimum wage to be $5.65 per hour. If you've been paying $5.15 per hour, you probably should go ahead and budget for $5.65.”

Competition for farm labor will continue in 2003 and beyond, he says. “A lot of illegal workers went home after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and it's harder to get back across the border these days.”

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