Farmers Accused of Discrimination in Use of Immigrants

Tuesday, 07 May 2013 10:26 AM

By Melanie Batley

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U.S. farmers are facing legal action from locals who say they are being discriminated against because jobs are only being offered to undocumented Mexican workers.

In Georgia, Stanley Farms is one of several large-scale crop producers facing a discrimination lawsuit mainly from black Americans who also say they are being fired because of their race and national origin, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

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

But the vast majority of Mexican farm workers are undocumented, and unlike Americans, often willing to work under extreme conditions for little pay. As one American worker who was recently fired from a farm put it to the Times, "We are not going to run all the time. We are not Mexicans."

Jon Schwalls, director of operations at Southern Valley, another farm that has faced legal action, agrees that Mexican workers approach the jobs differently.

"When Jose gets on the bus to come here from Mexico he is committed to the work. It's like going into the military. He leaves his family at home. The work is hard, but he's ready," he told the Times.

"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."

Labor lawyers argue that the policy of hiring immigrants to the exclusion of locals is racist and discriminatory. The solution, they say, is to expand the guest worker program, as lawmakers in Congress have proposed to do in the immigration reform package. They also believe farmers should be required to make job conditions more palatable.

"There used to be lots of American pickers who moved around the country," Jim Knoepp of the Southern Poverty Law Center told the Times. "But wages have stagnated and conditions have deteriorated, and agriculture is unwilling to make these jobs attractive.

"Think of trash collection. That's not very appealing, either. But if you offer a decent wage and conditions, people do it."

According to one expert, about two-thirds of farm workers in the 1970s were American and a third were foreign. Ten years later the proportion was reversed, and today the vast majority of farm workers around the country are undocumented immigrants, the Times reported.

But attorneys representing the farmers say their clients are not racist, and that hiring immigrants over locals is simply a function of necessity.

"The farmers are not racist or against Americans," J. Larry Stine, an Atlanta lawyer for Stanley Farms and other large farms, told the Times.

"They have crops to be picked, and they see that domestics just don't have their hearts in it," he said.


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