Workers Claim Race Bias as Farms Rely on Immigrants

Ethan Bronner, New York Times, May 6, 2013

For years, labor unions and immigrant rights activists have accused large-scale farmers, like those harvesting sweet Vidalia onions here this month, of exploiting Mexican guest workers. Working for hours on end under a punishing sun, the pickers are said to be crowded into squalid camps, driven without a break and even cheated of wages.

But as Congress weighs immigration legislation expected to expand the guest worker program, another group is increasingly crying foul—Americans, mostly black, who live near the farms and say they want the field work but cannot get it because it is going to Mexicans. They contend that they are illegally discouraged from applying for work and treated shabbily by farmers who prefer the foreigners for their malleability.

“They like the Mexicans because they are scared and will do anything they tell them to,” said Sherry Tomason, who worked for seven years in the fields here, then quit. Last month she and other local residents filed a federal lawsuit against a large grower of onions, Stanley Farms, alleging that it mistreated them and paid them less than it paid the Mexicans.

The suit is one of a number of legal actions containing similar complaints against farms, including a large one in Moultrie, Ga., where Americans said they had been fired because of their race and national origin, given less desirable jobs and provided with fewer work opportunities than Mexican guest workers. Under a consent decree with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the farm, Southern Valley, agreed to make certain changes.


“We have tried to fill our labor locally,” said Brian Stanley, an owner of Stanley Farms, which is being sued by Ms. Tomason and others. “But we couldn’t get enough workers, and that was hindering our growth. So we turned to the guest worker program.”

The vast majority of farm workers in the country are not in the guest worker program but are simply unauthorized immigrants. {snip}

Mr. Stanley, like other farmers, argues that Americans who say they want the work end up quitting because it is hard, leaving the crops to rot in the fields. But the situation is filled with cultural and racial tensions.

Even many of the Americans who feel mistreated acknowledge that the Mexicans who arrive on buses for a limited period are incredibly efficient, often working into the night seven days a week to increase their pay.

“We are not going to run all the time,” said Henry Rhymes, who was fired—unfairly, he says—from Southern Valley after a week on the job. “We are not Mexicans.”

Jon Schwalls, director of operations at Southern Valley, made a similar point.

“When Jose gets on the bus to come here from Mexico he is committed to the work,” he said. “It’s like going into the military. He leaves his family at home. The work is hard, but he’s ready. A domestic wants to know: What’s the pay? What are the conditions? In these communities, I am sorry to say, there are no fathers at home, no role models for hard work. They want rewards without input.”

Such generalizations lead lawyers—and residents—to say there are racist undertones to the farms’ policies.

“I am not arguing that agricultural work is a good job,” said Dawson Morton, a lawyer who focuses on farm workers’ rights at the Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit law firm. “I am arguing that it could be a better job. If you want experienced people, train them. Just because people are easier to supervise, agricultural employers shouldn’t be able to import them. It is not true that Americans don’t want the work. What the farmers are really saying is that blacks just don’t want to work.”


Jim Knoepp of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group that has campaigned against the guest worker program, said that farm work, like other difficult labor, could be made attractive to Americans at reasonable cost, and that farmers should not be excused from doing so.


Cindy Hahamovitch, an expert on guest worker programs at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, said that in the 1970s about two-thirds of farm workers were Americans and a third were foreign, and that a decade later the proportion was reversed. Today, she said, the vast majority of farm workers around the country are immigrants, although not in the guest worker program.


For the past few months, Southern Valley has been required to provide daily bus transportation to the farm and demonstrate that it was training and retaining Americans. But a recent inspection of those efforts left federal officials unimpressed.

Southern Valley officials make no secret of their belief that the consent decree—the free bus, the orientation program they now run and the training—is a waste of their time and money. They assert that there is no discrimination and that they would prefer to hire locals if they could.


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