GAO Reports Shortfalls in Agricultural Workers’ Rights Continue

Posted: Jun 02, 2017 12:01 AM Updated: Jun 02, 2017 12:01 AM

WESLACO – A reissued government watchdog group report shows more needs to be done to protect domestic and foreign agriculture workers in the U.S.

The Government Accountability Office looked into how the U.S. Department of Labor and other agencies are working to safeguard workers’ rights.

U.S. citizen Ramiro Torres has worked produce for 40 years as a domestic worker. “I worked with all sort of produce, like onions. That’s what was popular when I came over here,” he said.

Torres said he’s struggling to find another job after being laid off a month and a half ago. “I used to work in a group with people with irrigation. They told me they needed us to do more and more and more. And I would tell them that we have to stop to eat, drink water or rest, but they don’t give you time. They want the person to last longer. And it’s really difficult for me,” he said.

Torres said it’s hard to keep up with workers on an H2-A agriculture work visa. “The way they work is very different, because they are trying to make points with the boss, saying ‘I can do more’ and ‘No, I can do more.’ And it’s a lot of pressure for the employees,” he said.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney Daniela Dwyer said out of the 250,000 farmworkers in Texas, a large portion of them work in the Rio Grande Valley. She told CHANNEL 5 NEWS there has been tension between domestic and H-2B workers. “The argument has always been that the U.S. worker or the American worker gets undercut by people who don’t have status who are willing to work for less, because they’re so desperate,” she said.

Advocates said domestic workers, who they believe should have first dibs on the job, are given the runaround. Employers tell them they're not qualified, because they'd rather employ visa workers, who aren't protected under the same workers' rights. That's something representatives of La Union Del Pueblo Entero, a labor rights organization in the Valley, said needs to be checked. 

“As usual, they leave the H2-As, the agriculture workers, out in the cold,” said Vaughn Cox of LUPE. Cox said they’re often exploited and promised on average about five dollars more an hour than domestic workers. However, he said what’s promised is not always fulfilled.  

“The wages may not be what they promised and the working conditions and living conditions, in particular, are often far substandard. It’s just a terrible way to handle temporary workers,” Cox said.

It’s easy for farmers and growers to have power over these workers, according to advocates. They said workers can be blocked from ever getting a job again if they complain.

“I think I need a different job. Since I would be new, they give a lot of pressure, so people will leave on their own. If I miss a day, they replace me quickly, because there are other people that want to work,” Torres said.

Anyone working in agriculture that is experiencing exploitation has resources available for them. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid is one of the organizations that can help. You can call them at 1-800-369-0574. 

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