Written by Esther Yu-Hsi Lee
An overwhelming majority of New Mexico farm and dairy workers have been underpaid and mistreated, according to aNew Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP) study released Monday. Over 88 percent of farm and dairy workers were subject to wage theft, poor working conditions, and forced to work overtime without lunch breaks.
Immigrants overwhelmingly make up the nation’s agricultural workforce. More than fifty percent of the nation’s farmworkers are undocumented, so employers threaten them with deportation if they report abuse or try to organize.
One dairy worker recounted a harrowing tale of being attacked by a bull, which broke his ribs and punctured his lungs. His $40,000 medical bill was only partially paid for by his employer and caused him to lose his home and his vehicle. Another worker severely injured her wrist on the job, but was dumped at the hospital without any identification or money.
In violation of the Pesticide Control Act, over 20 percent of farm workers were exposed to pesticides while they were out in the field. The consequences of pesticide exposure range from dizziness to lifelong respiratory issues to even acute poisoning, which these workers cannot afford to treat because they lack health insurance.
Despite the bleak working conditions they endure, farm workers are among the poorest of the working class. They generate an annual family income of $15,000 to $17,499. Of the New Mexico agricultural workers surveyed, the annual household income was a paltry $8,978. While the agricultural industry made over $3 billion within the past five years, the average amount paid in wages was only about $231 million.
New Mexican laws permit a wide swath of provisions for small family farms to keep afloat financially, but such laws are exploited by large agribusinesses as well. These provisions let farmers pay dairy workers less than minimum wage. Under these laws, agricultural workers in the state are denied other basic labor protections such as overtime pay, the ability to participate in collective bargaining, and the right to a safe and clean workplace.
Although violence and wage theft are still ongoing occurrences in New Mexico and beyond, a judge ruled that agricultural workers were entitled to equal protection under the New Mexico Constitution. Dairy farmers have pursued legal challenges as a result.
California, another state that relies on immigrant farm workers, is on track to pass legislation that would penalize employers who threaten to turn workers in to immigration authorities. Notably, the state will consider its first sexual harassment complaint filed by a female farm worker later this summer.
This post was originally published at ThinkProgress.
Photo from Thinkstock