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Outsourcing Abuse: How Farm Workers Are Being Cheated Out of Their Hard-Earned Money

This kind of wage theft can be found in the fields of nearly every handpicked crop in the United States -- organic or conventional.

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Known in some circles as “custom harvesters,” farm-labor contractors offer produce growers a ready workforce, but they also give these growers the ability to distance themselves from the people who pick their crops. These contractors control the flow of money between farmer and worker as well as all the paperwork. They track hours worked, crops harvested, and wages paid and take responsibility for everything related to labor, from verifying immigration status to providing workers’ compensation. Contractors can be found in the fields of nearly every handpicked crop in the United States, organic or conventional: green beans in Florida, grapefruit in Texas, peppers in Georgia, greens in Colorado, and garlic in California.

Farm-labor contractors give American produce growers what companies like China’s Foxconn offer to Apple: a way to outsource a costly and complicated part of the business, often saving money in the process and creating a firewall between the brand and the working conditions under which its products are made. “The contractor system makes it very difficult to enforce wage and hour laws because the idea is that the grower says, ‘It’s not me, it’s him. It’s the contractor. I had nothing to do with this,’” says Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project of Florida Legal Services and a leading farm-labor advocate. The case by Villalobos and Gomez, their lawyers say, offers a textbook example of abuse within the contracting system.

Unlike most farm-labor cases filed each year, Villalobos is a “collective action” suit. This designation broadens the case beyond the named plaintiffs and opens the case to any worker who can prove he or she experienced the same treatment at the hands of the defendants between 2008 and 2011. “We’re expecting it will cover hundreds if not thousands of workers,” says Megan Beaman, an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, the nonprofit farmworker advocacy group that filed the suit in U.S. District Court. If the court finds in favor of Villalobos and Gomez on all counts, the award per client could reach tens of thousands of dollars. Multiplied across hundreds of workers, this could be enough to “deter other employers from creating those same conditions,” Beaman says. The case, in other words, isn’t just about claiming back wages for its plaintiffs but about challenging the broader culture of abuse in their workplace.

Although the case is limited to agricultural workers, other industries may be closely watching it. By naming the grower as a defendant, the case confronts one of the thorniest problems facing American workers: the rise of subcontracted labor and the question of who is responsible when abuse occurs. “If you think about the jobs we can’t outsource and will stay here, that’s where you see a lot of subcontracting going on,” says Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project, a policy advocacy group. Subcontracting has sprawled into other low-wage jobs in construction, janitorial, security, health-care, housekeeping, and warehouse industries, often at name-brand companies like Amazon and Wal-Mart. “It’s kind of like Whac-A-Mole. If you go after the smaller-level contractors, they just pop up again on another site,” says Ruckelshaus. “You have to go up to the next level—or the level above—to make the patterns change.”

Contracting has been a part of American agriculture for the past century, performing what agribusinesses say are crucial services. For starters, contractors give farmers a hassle-free way to adjust the size of their workforce (and payroll) by season, letting them expand during harvest and shrink once it’s done. What’s more, says Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, “farmers are good at growing crops and marketing produce. All the legalities are not their area of expertise.” Gasperini’s group, which advocates for the country’s largest growers, sees contractors as a natural solution to farmers’ skill gap. “Hiring a contractor,” he says, “it’s not different than having an accountant to manage the portion that you’re not an expert in.”

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