How farmworker wage theft bankrupts our rural communities

A few years ago LSP organizer Doug Nopar was told of a southeast Minnesota farm operation that was withholding wages from a worker after he had accidentally damaged a door with a skid steer loader. Nopar called the farm owner and let him know this action was quite illegal. The farmer’s response?

“You know, I can do anything I want.…I can treat my workers any way I want. I’ve got my own personnel policy,” Nopar, speaking on a recent LSP Ear to the Ground podcast, recalls the farmer telling him. 

Fortunately, such an arrogant attitude is not common among Minnesota farmers. Most recognize that a day’s work deserves a day’s pay, no matter if the worker hails from Montevideo or Mexico. But there are signs that wage theft and other abuses of farmworkers are a growing problem in Minnesota.

The most prominent recent example was highlighted in January when it came to light that two large “model” industrial farms in southeast Minnesota were ordered to pay over $100,000 combined in back overtime wages to employees. One of the operations, Daley Farms in Lewiston, fought its fine for five years.

As rural Winona County resident Barb Nelson puts it, when something like that occurs, it puts a “black mark” on all farms in the region, as well as the community in general. And farms who engage in wage theft and other violations are enjoying an unfair competitive advantage over the operations that follow the rules.

Under Minnesota law, farms that have more than $500,000 in gross annual sales need to comply with theMinnesota Fair Labor Standards Act. Wage and hour law applies to all workers, regardless of status or documentation. LSP, working with Centro Campesino and the Latino Economic Development Center, has documented several examples of violations on industrial farms in Minnesota, including:

1) Failure to provide a final paycheck after employee’s resignation or dismissal.

2) Failure to pay for all hours worked.

3) Docking of worker wages for damage to farm equipment or buildings.

4) Failure to inform injured workers of their rights to workers’ compensation.

5) Personnel policies that are not in compliance with the law.

In LSP’s Ear to the Ground podcast, Centro Campesino’s executive director, Ernesto Velez Bustos, provides a shopping list of workers’ rights violations he knows of in the region. Some violations can be blamed on ignorance on the part of farm owners when it comes to government labor rules. But others are contrary to what most of us would consider basic rules of human decency—you know, the kind where we treat people like we would want to be treated ourselves.

“A lot of these violations involve situations that are not too complicated to understand that something is wrong,” says Bustos. “I think a lot of common sense and just everyday values and ethics would apply.”

And most people want their food and farming system to be based on good values and ethics, argues Lisa Sass Zaragoza, who teaches a class on migrant farmworkers at the University of Minnesota. But because agricultural labor violations tend to fly under the radar, even people who generally seek out sustainably raised products are often “duped,” as she puts it, into thinking their food is being produced, harvested and processed under conditions that are fair to workers.

“The farm worker rights piece is so crucial to being a part of a food system that is healthy, that is productive and that is dignified,” Zaragoza says. “And it’s the food production system many of us want.”

A farming system that mistreats those who produce food is no more sustainable than one that mistreats the soil. That’s why Centro Campesino, the Land Stewardship Project and the Latino Economic Development Center have combined forces and are asking allies around the state to help document farmworker rights violations.

The groups are also calling on the University of Minnesota and U of M Extension to dramatically increase their educational and research activities in the area of farm labor. After all, like many land grant universities, the U of M has played a key role in promoting the development of the kind of large-scale industrial farms that often rely on large numbers of low-wage workers. It’s time the U of M took responsibility as a public research and outreach institution and helped alleviate the problem of farmworker abuse.

The Minnesota Farmworker Justice Campaign is just one more step LSP is taking to create the kind of food and farming that builds communities of people, rather than sets them at odds with each other.

“We’re not really approaching this from a do-gooder approach,” says Nopar. “We need to look at this from a position of self-interest, with an attitude of ‘What kind of community do you want to live in?’ “

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    Brian DeVore's picture
    Brian DeVore