Source: US Department of Labor Blog
by David Weil
Agricultural workers are among the most vulnerable, at-risk populations that the U.S. Department of Labor protects. They are typically unaware of their rights, or afraid to speak up. They often fall victim to wage, health and safety violations as they toil for long hours, often in harsh conditions, to put food on tables across the nation.
As nonprofit organization Farmworker Justice points out in a new report, the Department’s Wage and Hour Division has made a lot of progress in promoting compliance with federal labor laws in the agriculture sector. As the report stated, we have increased our resources focused on this industry, with more enforcement hours and better targeting yielding significant results.
Last year we found violations in 78 percent of the investigations we conducted in agriculture, and assessed more than $3 million in penalties to employers found in violation. Overall, our investigations in agriculture in fiscal year 2014 recovered more than $4.5 million in unpaid wages for more than 12,000 workers. That amounts to $375 in back wages per worker, or, to put that in context, the same amount a typical farm worker would earn in a 40-hour workweek. And denied wages are often not the most egregious violations we find. Many workers find themselves in harm’s way as a result of unsafe housing and transportation leading to even more devastating results.
We have made progress in protecting workers, yet, challenges remain and we must face them in the most effective, efficient ways possible. Since we will never be able to investigate or to provide training to every grower directly, we will continue to deploy our resources strategically to improve compliance as broadly as possible. We are committed to strengthen the results of every investigation. We will not play a game of whack-a-mole correcting violations on a case-by-case basis. We find the causes of the violations and address them.
Because much control is concentrated at the very top of the agriculture industry, we are taking a “supply chain” approach to address compliance problems. We are finding ways to create pressure higher-up in the chain to compel compliance and change behaviors at all of the levels below.
Whether it’s a major retailer who refuses to buy strawberries from a grower found in violation, or a citrus brand that compels compliance among its suppliers to protect its brand image, the leverage in these relationships can exert considerable pressure to comply. The tobacco industry provides another example of harnessing the power in these relationships, where the Wage and Hour Division has worked closely with the Farm Labor Practices Group to train thousands of growers on labor law compliance.
We have long recognized that education is as important as enforcement in moving toward our compliance goals and have conducted hundreds of outreach events specific to the agricultural community. Our plain-language educational materials are helping both growers and workers.
We have made great strides in improving compliance in agriculture, but more work remains. We will continue to use every enforcement tool available to us to cultivate compliance, to protect both workers and law-abiding growers who should not find themselves at an economic disadvantage to those who save money by skirting the law. We will continue to improve conditions for those who without us may have no voice.
Dr. David Weil is the administrator of the department’s Wage and Hour Division.