Opinion - Gov. Deal's farm labor plan recalls convict leasing

Georgia has a shameful legacy of exploiting agricultural workers

Gov. Deal's proposal to send unemployed probationers to work in Georgia's fields as a solution to a perceived labor shortage is unconscionable. The proposal shows willful ignorance of the shameful legacy of convict leasing in the South and directs attention away from systemic human rights violations in the agricultural industry.

There are many people in need of work. If there is a shortage of farmworkers in Georgia, it's only in the number of people willing to work for a sub-poverty wage as members of the least-protected labor force, agricultural workers.

The roots of Deal's proposed solution reach perilously close to the discredited legacy of convict leasing. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, except as punishment for a crime. Desperate to keep newly freed blacks in the fields, Georgia's brutal institution of convict leasing in 1868 became a model in the South. Although abolished in 1908, it set a deep historical precedent. Growers, faced with the option of raising wages to attract workers in a free labor market, instead turned to the government to provide an alternative exploitable labor force.

For the rest of the century, this exploitation often meant importing foreign workers of color from impoverished regions. When the U.S. entered World War II, growers refused to raise wages to attract workers when the surplus of cheap labor diminished. The federal government created what became known as the Bracero Program, which, until its end in 1965, contracted four million Mexican nationals to work in the fields. In the South, thousands of workers from Mexico, Jamaica and Puerto Rico were imported as an abundant source of cheap labor. Today, this labor importation continues as the H-2A guest worker program.

From a historical context, the convict labor proposal diverts attention from the real problem in agricultural labor. It's never been about immigration or even shortages. The problem is demand from an industry that has continually relied on the labor of the most exploitable and the most vulnerable to keep wages low. It has created what can only be described as a human rights crisis in the fields.

Farmworkers today are subject to wages that violate the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being. The average annual income of a U.S. agricultural worker is less than $12,000. Real hourly wages have increased only about 75 cents since 1975. Small farms, like many of those in Georgia, are excluded from federal minimum wage requirements. Only 8 percent of workers are covered by an employer health plan, despite significant health risks posed by pesticides, intense heat and strenuous physical labor.

The 1935 National Labor Relations Act and other New Deal policies designed to protect workers' rights excluded two groups of laborers — farmworkers and domestics (professions held primarily by African Americans at the time). Farmworkers still lack the right to organize, to overtime pay and even to days of rest. Such powerlessness has made farmworkers vulnerable to extreme forms of abuse.

Since 1997, seven cases of slavery involving farmworkers in the South have been successfully prosecuted by the Department of Justice. As a result, more than 1,200 workers have been released from forced labor in the fields.

Georgia's harvest of shame must end. Securing the rights of farmworkers is the best way to secure fair and abundant labor in the fields. Supplying growers with ex-convicts instead of addressing egregious human rights violations born from the legacy of slavery and convict leasing is devastatingly ironic. The only thing more tragic would be public consent.

Laura Emiko Soltis lived in a migrant farmworker community in Immokalee, Fla., as part of her doctoral research at Emory University.

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