Democrats Are Missing a Key Moment to Back Farmworkers

Despite a lack of evidence, Republicans in the House claim that high farmworker wages are causing farmers to go broke. Democrats should stand up for farmworkers and set the record straight.

Bryce Oates April 4, 2024

In March, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack testified at the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee to defend White House budget and policy positions on agriculture, nutrition programs, climate action and rural economic development funding.

Vilsack batted away the standard Republican playbook of attacks, defending his signature “climate smart agriculture” program, record funding for farm conservation programs and the continued need for status quo food and nutrition programs that serve the poor and working class.

Then, in a sign of the fiscal extremism taking over the right, Republicans took their attacks a step further. They went after hundreds of thousands of agricultural workers, many of whom, the Republicans say, are “overpaid.”

Republican committee members attacked Vilsack and the Biden administration for their handling of farm labor and farmworker issues. Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.) led the way, claiming that “small farmers” are being driven out of business by the high farmworker wages required under the H-2A visa program, which allows temporary work visas for foreign seasonal farmworkers.

Depending on the state, H-2A workers earn a minimum wage of between $14.53 to $19.75 per hour. Farms who hire H-2A workers must also provide housing and transportation for employees.

Source: Farm Bureau Market Intel

“They are overcompensated and putting farms at risk,” said Moolenaar. “If you talk to the 5th and 6th generation of farmers in my district, they are not going to make it.”

Moolenaar offered up his bill, the Supporting Farm Operations Act, as his preferred solution. The bill would provide a two year pause on increases to the H-2A minimum wage, referred to as the “Adverse Effect Wage Rate” (AEWR). Vilsack countered with his favored legislation, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bipartisan bill that provides a one-year pause on wage increases and an annual cap of increases at no more than 3.5%.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is a compromise bill drafted by giant agribusiness interests, traditional business-friendly Republicans and Democrats pushing for immigration reform. President Biden has repeatedly endorsed the legislation. The bill gives large farms who require hired farm labor—primarily vegetable, fruit, nut and giant livestock and dairy operations—wage increase caps. To placate anti-immigration hardliners, the bill includes mandatory E-verify, a federal, online system that checks the legal status of workers. For farmworkers, the bill implements a path to citizenship for H-2A workers, workplace safety protections and public support for farmworker housing.

The bill is supported by two of the largest farmworker groups in the nation, including the United Farmworkers of America and Farmworker Justice, both of whom helped draft it. Both organizations, while supporting the bill, are also clear that there are underlying problems with the migration reform bill. Many farmworker organizations, however, oppose the bill on the grounds that it does not go far enough to protect farmworkers—both documented and undocumented.

“This bill was a gift to growers and gave them things they’ve always wanted,” said Edgar Franks, political director for Familias Unidas por La Justicia, a farmworker union in Washington state, in an interview last year with The Nation. “We’ve been speaking out against it for three years—time we should have been able to spend organizing workers—because of the threat of E-Verify and the growth of the H-2A program.”

So far, opposition from grassroots farmworker groups, combined with hardline Republican immigration opponents, has prevented the Farm Workforce Modernization Act from becoming law. The bill passed the House in 2021, then under Democratic control, but stalled in the Senate, even despite a last-minute attempt by Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) to attach the bill, under a different name, to an omnibus spending package.

Given the current campaign-year environment with Republicans vilifying immigrants, the prospects for legislative action are dim.

While there is certainly a shortage of farm labor, Republicans prefer H-2A employees because farm owners want control over workers. They can fire and deport farmworkers who speak up for their rights or demand better working conditions. Yet, the H-2A program is anathema to farmworker organizers, who say that it allows wide ranging abuses of power, including unsanitary housing, dangerous work, lack of breaks during incredibly high temperatures and sexual and physical abuse.

Now, Republicans want to flex their legislative muscle to decrease farmworker pay. And Democrats are missing an important opportunity to fight back against Republican whining about “farmworkers being overpaid.” Republican claims about H-2A wage rates “driving small farmers out of business” are laughable. Most people understand that farm work is difficult and low-paying, and that farmworkers live in poverty.

Economic statistics within the agriculture industry are an important part of the analysis. According to the 2022 Census of Agriculture, farmworker pay amounts to only $51.9 billion out of $424.1 billion in total farm production expenses nationwide—about 12%. Fruit and tree nut growers and vegetable producers do have higher labor costs, estimated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) at 39% and 28% of cost-of-production.

Even with these higher costs, an analysis by the University of California-Davis’s Rural Migration News found that increasing farm wages by 40% would translate into a mere 4% increase in the retail price of fruits and vegetables while increasing the average pay for seasonal farmworkers from $14,000 to $19,600 for 1,000 hours of work. This 40% figure is far above the H-2A wage rate hike in 2024, which averages 5.6% nationwide.

Lost in the debate is the vast gap between who those who would be affected by increased farmworker pay.

Only 67,317 farms in the country spend more than $50,000 in hired labor, according to the 2022 Census of Agriculture, likely the bare minimum in labor expenses a farm would have to justify hiring H-2A workers. Another 25,363 farms, many of them overlapping with the previous number, spend more than $50,000 per year on contract farm labor. Even if you add the two categories together (92,680 farms), they account for only 4.9% of the nation’s 1,900,487 farms. On the other hand, approximately 1.18 million farmworkers would benefit from increased pay rates, according to ERS. That includes 378,000 H-2A certified positions in 2023.

At the end of the day, farmworker pay is yet another issue where Republicans use their power to control workers and drive down wages. Rather than demand long-sought wage increases and support labor organizing, many Democrats prefer the easy road of compromise status quo. It’s the same failed playbook as the 2021 effort to increase the federal minimum wage: feign support for policy supported by the vast majority of working people, then give Republicans what they want, even as they blast policy change as “left-wing socialist tyranny.”

With immigration policy a Republican dog whistle for xenophobic “law-and-order” propaganda, farmworker issues should be front-and-center. Democrats have an opportunity to regain lost ground among working class voters. They should harness the power of grassroots groups and organizing campaigns as an effective way to reach working class voters.

Carlos Marentes, founder and director of the Border Agricultural Workers Project in El Paso, Texas, put it this way in an interview:

“I think the main goal of our current immigration system is to divide working people, to pit us against each other. That way, wealth accumulation in the top 1% will continue while services to meet our basic needs decrease. As long as we are divided, as long as we are unable to create a political force to confront all these forms of oppression affecting people in the United States, it is going to be very complicated to make changes.”

America’s 1.18 million farmworkers create the wealth for fewer than 100,000 farms either owned by families or corporations—including the largest and most profitable farms in the nation.

Rising farm input costs are certainly a challenge for most farmers, but the answer is not limiting pay rates for people doing the work on farms. Instead, the solution is increasing prices paid to farmers for the crops and livestock they sell. That requires government intervention in the marketplace, strict enforcement of antitrust rules and a national farm policy that makes agribusiness pay farmers a fair price for the things they grow.

Democrats should stand up and refute Republican claims that farmers are going broke because of farmworker pay. With an uninspired voting base and low approval ratings for President Biden, Democrats could gain needed traction with influential voting blocs by prioritizing higher farm income and increased pay for farmworkers. At the very least, political attention to these issues could help grassroots family farm and farmworker groups gain momentum in their organizing campaigns to increase voter recruitment and turnout.

Bryce Oates

Bryce Oates writes The Cocklebur on Substack and is a Contributing Editor (Rural Community Organizing) at Barn Raiser. He writes about rural policy, people, places and politics. His work includes narrative nonfiction, opinion pieces and Q&A interviews. Bryce studies how the federal budget affects rural counties, farm and food policy, public lands and conservation issues, racial and gender equity in rural areas, climate change, economic inequality, rural demographic data and rural politics. A former farmer, rural economic developer and community organizer, he lives and works in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

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