Farm workers deserve better laws, wages

A legislative work session to hear the challenges farm workers face in our state will be held in Everett on Thursday. Washington’s Agriculture Department reported that the value of Washington’s 2012 agricultural production has reached $9.89 billion, 6 percent above the 2011 revised figure of $9.31 billion. Record high values of production were set for six of the top 20 Washington commodities — apples, wheat, cattle and calves, grapes, pears, beans. Washington also set record employment and sales figures in the food-processing industry.

With these successes, everyone in the industry should be celebrating and sharing the wealth, but not so for the farm workers. They continue to live below poverty level, experience wage theft, retaliation at the work and suffer human rights exploitation. Many still work in unsafe working conditions and unstable seasonal employment four to five months a year.

We have increasingly become aware of domestic farm workers getting paid below the $9.10 minimum wage. Adding to the dilemma is the H-2A guest worker program, a federal program that contracts foreign workers when a labor shortage is deemed to exist. The debate of whether there is a labor shortage has been contentious: The growers claiming there is and farm workers claiming there isn’t. However, the program is complex by state and federal guidelines, and not all growers will use this program that guarantees $12 per hour and continue the cycle of paying below minimum wage in many cases.

Farm workers are earning inconsistent wages, with families eating from food banks, housing conditions deplorable, workers experiencing verbal and physical abuse and everyone surviving day to day. Farm workers labor in dangerous situations with dangerous chemical sprays that cause vomiting or fainting in the fields. They have no sick paid leave to get treatment and most lack health insurance. Farm workers, like everyone else, want to be treated with respect and be paid fair wages for the hard physical work they do.

Many growers want to help, but they have their own challenges. Some have not been exempt from the economic crunch and lost their farms. Managing farms can be a financial drain. However, there are farmers that look the other way and take advantage of this labor force. Farm workers genuinely care about their employers and celebrate successful harvests. There are consumers who insist that what they buy is picked by farm workers earning a fair wage. However, there also are consumers that assume that paying a fair wage will increase food prices.

Middle players like the grocers, agriculture contractors and food processing companies get their share of the market without understanding farm worker circumstances. State agencies want to provide better services but need to be more responsive. Advocates serving farm workers are struggling with the lack of resources.

There is resistance to establish fair labor laws for farm workers. There is blaming and no accountability. It won’t be easy to fix a historic problem, but it is the moral thing to do. It can’t only involve farm workers, growers and advocates, it needs to include all stakeholders. Most importantly, farm workers must be at the table in leadership roles. They have the answers if we will listen.

Gov. Jay Inslee can take a leadership role to bridge bipartisan efforts to improve the crisis farm workers face in our state. State leaders are fighting to ensure jobs are protected and remain in Washington. Farm workers shouldn’t be exempt from such attention. This labor force sacrifices for every cent they make and are often dismissed. Farm workers have had enough of broken promises and failed attempts to improve their wages. To the growers and middle players: We need your participation to improve the situation, and trust you will. And to Washingtonians: Please get involved. If you don’t, nothing will improve. We expect our legislators to help improve the lives of farm workers.

Washington State Legislative Labor &Workforce Committee Work Session: 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, at Everett Community College, Henry Jackson Conference Center

Nina Martinez is Vice Chair of Latino Civic Alliance (LCA) a statewide, nonpartisan civic engagement and advocacy organization. Email her at nina@latinocivicalliance.org

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