Trump administration move could slash wages for over 200,000 farm workers

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Migrant farm laborers with Fresh Harvest working with an H-2A visa rest in their company dormitory on April 28, 2020 in King City, California.
Brent Stirton/Getty Images
  • The US Department of Agriculture published a notice on Wednesday announcing plans to stop conducting a wage survey of farm workers.
  • Daniel Costa, an expert at the Economic Policy Institute, told Business Insider the move could allow the Trump administration to slash wages for migrants.
  • Farm workers, an “essential” labor force during the pandemic, could see their wages drop from an average of just under $13 an hour to, in some states, as low as $5.15 an hour.
  • “This administration is using ‘essential’ as a euphemism for ‘disposable,'” Elizabeth Strater, an organizer with the United Farm Workers union, told Business Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Migrant farm workers are already some of the lowest-paid laborers in the United States. Now the Trump administration is enacting a change that organizers and policy experts say will further lower the wages of more than 200,000 people.

In a notice published Wednesday, the US Department of Agriculture announced that it no longer intends to collect data on the money paid to those who keep Americans fed. Ostensibly, that’s because there are other sources for the information, which the federal government uses to determine the mandated rate of pay for workers on H-2A work visas, who make up about 10% of the agricultural workforce.

But critics maintain there’s an ulterior motive: relying on those other sources of wage data will result in lower wages for the vast majority of agricultural employees. Indeed, the Trump administration did not deny a report earlier this year that it was working to do just that, purportedly to aid an agriculture industry hurting from COVID-19 — drawing the ire of US Sen. Kamala Harris, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate, who called the plan “inexcusable.”

“Many farm workers are already vastly underpaid and doing backbreaking work to put food on our tables,” she wrote in April. “They deserve a raise — not a pay cut.”

Today, migrant farm workers make, on average, just under $13 an hour, a rate that varies by region. By failing to conduct its traditional Agricultural Labor Survey, such workers could instead be paid just the minimum wage — in Georgia, one of the top producers of everything from watermelon to tomatoes, that’s as low as $5.15 an hour. 

In Florida, home to some 47,000 commercial farms, migrant laborers would see their wages slashed to $101 per week, according to Farm worker Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“These are already some of the poorest workers in this country,” Elizabeth Strater, an organizer with the United Farm Workers union, told Business Insider. Guestworkers, she said, could see their income reduced by thousands of dollars each growing season (H-2A workers typically remain in the US for around six months at a time). But they won’t be the only ones affected.

Farm workers are considered “essential” by the Trump administration, which despite a record of xenophobia has increasingly welcomed H-2A visa holders, even making it easier for the agriculture industry to hire them during the pandemic. But it has not provided any additional protections or money commensurate with the sacrifice of these laborers, instead directing some $36 billion in aid to their employers.

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Migrant farm laborers with Fresh Harvest working with an H-2A visa have their temperature checked and are asked questions about their health before boarding the bus to their shift, in the company living quarters on April 28, 2020 in King City, California.
Brent Stirton/Getty Images

“This administration is using ‘essential’ as a euphemism for ‘disposable,'” Strater maintained. “Families have sent their children or spouses into this country to keep our food supply intact,” only to see them infected with and dying from COVID-19, she said, their loved ones unable to retrieve their bodies. One study found agricultural workers, compared to other industries, were three times as likely to contract the disease.

“Do you know how brutal that is? Not just a lack of compensation — they don’t even get them back in a coffin,” Strater continued. “That’s the context for this.”

Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the center-left Economic Policy Institute, told Business Insider that “scrapping the survey before it’s completed for the year gives them the excuse to use another data source for 2021 and beyond.” And that, in practice, would mean reducing what are already some of the lowest wages in any sector, at a time when these workers are risking their health not only during a pandemic but an extended wildfire season that led the West Coast to experience some of the worst air quality in the world.

“The justification has never been better for higher rates,” Costa said. “And when you consider the billions and billions that farmers have gotten in government subsidies and aid, even just this year, it’s pretty hard to argue that they can’t afford to pay a decent living wage.”

The USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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