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Operation Blooming Onion Shows Why Additional Farmworker Protections Are Needed

SUMMARY

Last year Operation Blooming Onion freed more than 100 people from what local officials called “the shackles of modern-day slavery” and showed how far greedy players in the agriculture industry will go to profit off of the backs of those working the fields. 

Provisions in the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would end many of the abuses seen during Operation Blooming Onion and allow farmworkers to “improve their living and working conditions and . . . the health and well-being of their families.” That’s why more than 250 farmers’ and producers’ associations, along with more than 100 organizations representing labor unions, immigrants’ rights, and business interests support FWMA.

However, lobbying efforts by the American Farm Bureau Federation are slowing negotiations and protecting a small group of bad actor growers and producers from accountability. Under the “leadership” of Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall, the American Farm Bureau now stands virtually alone in working to block FWMA because an expansion to a provision known as the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protections Act (MSPA) would allow exploited H-2A workers to sue their employers.

The Farm Bureau’s opposition to the worker protections offered through MSPA is just one example of their opposition to policies that safeguard workers from the horrific conditions witnessed in Operation Blooming Onion. Their 2022 policy book outlines in detail their agenda to repeal existing employment standards related to wages, housing, and transportation and obstruct any new protections designed to prevent such abuse. For “mega-abusers” like those exposed during Operation Blooming Onion, the current system is working exactly the way that the most powerful agricultural stakeholders designed it to work. Instead of condemning the actions of a few bad actors, they are looking to legalize much of the exploitation uncovered through the sting operation.

Some might accept the American Farm Bureau Federation’s (AFBF) claim to be “the Unified National Voice of Agriculture.” But those of U.S. in rural America know better. We know the Farm Bureau represents the industry groups who profit off agriculture, not the people who work the fields planting and harvesting our food. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Farm Bureau’s opposition to the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA) and the ag workforce policies outlined in their 2022 National Policy Book.

The current system supported by AFBF is holding rural America back. Farmworkers and family farmers are the backbone to many rural economies, and keeping undocumented immigrants off the books and in the shadows hurts all U.S. workers and only benefits shady employers. However, legalizing immigrants already living and working in our communities would benefit all workers and allow all rural people to fully participate in their local economies.

OPERATION BLOOMING ONION SHOWS HOW FAR GREEDY PLAYERS IN THE AGRICULTURE INDUSTRY WILL GO TO PROFIT OFF OF THE BACKS OF THOSE WORKING THE FIELDS

  • Operation Blooming Onion is the clearest example of exploitation under the current system. More than 100 individuals in Georgia were freed from “the shackles of modern-day slavery” during the operation, which was described as “one of the largest human trafficking cases in U.S. history.”

  • Operation Blooming Onion is the colloquial name for USA v. Patricio et al.: a three-year, multi-agency federal investigation that resulted in 24 indictments — mostly labor contractors — on felony conspiracy charges including human smuggling and document fraud. The defendants are residents of Georgia, Florida, Texas, and a few are Mexican citizens.

  • Operation Blooming Onion shows just how deep the corruption in Georgia is: Brett Bussey, one of the former Department of Labor state overseers for worker protections, was among the operators indicted. They used the pretext of H-2A recruitment processes to bring Central American workers into Southern Georgia and forced them to labor in unsafe (and in two cases fatal) conditions, in part by holding identification documents hostage and threatening to kill workers and their families.

  • As the DOJ press release described:

    • “Exploitation of the workers included being required to dig onions with their bare hands, paid 20 cents for each bucket harvested, and threatened with guns and violence to keep them in line. The workers were held in cramped, unsanitary quarters and fenced work camps with little or no food, limited plumbing and without safe water. The conspirators are accused of raping, kidnapping and threatening or attempting to kill some of the workers or their families, and in many cases sold or traded the workers to other conspirators. At least two of the workers died as a result of workplace conditions.” 

KEY FWMA PROVISIONS WOULD END MANY ABUSES SEEN IN OPERATION BLOOMING ONION 

  • For the first time in 30 years Congress has a tangible opportunity to modernize our agricultural economy while improving working conditions for farmers and farmworkers.

  • In March of last year the U.S. House passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act with a strong bipartisan vote. Now Senate Republicans and Democrats are negotiating a deal on an immigration bill that farmers say, if passed, could reduce food prices in part by helping them hire more workers.

  • The FWMA would stabilize the existing workforce by giving long-term farm workers a path to legal status and eventual citizenship. It would also provide for future labor needs by streamlining and expanding the H-2A guest worker program, which recruits foreign nationals to fill “low-skill,” temporary or seasonal agricultural jobs for which U.S. workers are not available.

  • A key provision of FWMA would allow H-2A workers to be covered under the Migrant Seasonal Worker Protection Act (MSPA), granting them the right — like most other workers — to go to the courts when they face grave injustices such as dangerous and illegal working conditions, wage theft, or verbal or physical abuse. Under FWMA, minor infractions on the part of worker or employer will be handled through a no-cost mediation process, reserving legal challenges for only the most egregious offenses.

  • 89% of current farmworkers are currently covered by MSPA. The law helps protect workers from stolen wages and unsafe housing and transportation conditions.

  • Most farmers in America who utilize H-2A labor hire only a few workers — usually less than five. These small farms would benefit from predictable labor costs, and a cheaper and faster application process provided by the FWMA. 

  • That’s why more than 250 farmers’ and producers’ associations support FWMA, along with more than 100 organizations representing labor unions, immigrants’ rights, and business interests.

  • Charles Wingard, a vegetable farmer in South Carolina, told NPR that he uses a blend of H-2A and domestic workers and has never had an issue with MSPA, nor does he have an issue with the expansion. "It goes back to if you treat your workers good and do right for them and by them. ...You shouldn't have any problems with them," Wingard said.

  • But for bad actor “mega-abusers” the current system is working exactly the way that the most powerful agricultural stakeholders designed it to work. Changes to MSPA present challenges to their business model. The Farm Bureau is fighting for producers who hire anywhere from 200 to 2,700 H-2A workers in one year. These farmers have the clout to use and abuse H-2A workers, often through labor contracting companies who manage the H-2A visa process, housing, food, and transportation for workers. The impact of violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, other OSHA and DOL policies, as well as USCIS policies, range in harm from fatalities to forcing families into the shadows without daily food or the ability to get back home.

LOBBYING EFFORTS BY THE AMERICAN FARM BUREAU FEDERATION ARE PROTECTING A SMALL GROUP OF BAD ACTOR GROWERS AND PRODUCERS FROM ACCOUNTABILITY

  • While the vast majority of American voters and agricultural organizations support the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, lobbying efforts by the American Farm Bureau Federation, are protecting from accountability a small group of bad actor growers and producers with documented histories of labor exploitation.

  • Under the “leadership” of President Zippy Duvall, the American Farm Bureau now stands virtually alone in working to block FWMA

  • When it comes to bad actor employers, Allison Crittenden, director of congressional relations at the AFBF, said: “We don’t condone those actions, but we do feel there is enough oversight that already exists through the regulatory structure that creating that litigation expansion is not necessary.”

  • The American Farm Bureau’s opposition to the FWMA is tied specifically to the provision that would allow H-2A workers to be covered under the Migrant Seasonal Worker Protection Act (MSPA), granting them the right — like most other workers — to go to the courts when they face grave injustices such as dangerous and illegal working conditions, wage theft, or verbal or physical abuse. Under FWMA, minor infractions on the part of worker or employer will be handled through a no-cost mediation process, reserving legal challenges for only the most egregious offenses.

  • According to Crittenden, the MSPA “sets out causes of actions that if [farmworkers] think their employers are not following the law, these different provisions could be the basis of a lawsuit. We have serious concerns with expanding that litigation risk to H-2A employers by including them under MSPA.”

  • The Farm Bureau’s opposition to the worker protections offered through MSPA is just one example of their agenda to legalize some of the exploitation witnessed during Operation Blooming Onion. 

  • The AFBF actively works to shield bad actors from legal liabilities associated with hiring undocumented immigrants. Their policy book states that “employers should not be held liable for determining the legal or illegal status of employees” and policies to legalize the workforce must “not penalize the employer when a worker comes forward.”

  • The AFBF also advocates for “labor contractors,” such as those used in the Operation Blooming Onion scandal, to be “recognized as the sole employer of said workforce” which shifts liability for employment practices off of the growers and producers.

  • While some of worst atrocities seen in the investigation involved the horrible living conditions in the mandated farmworker housing, the AFBF wants to reduce farmworker housing standards to that of FEMA trailers, require watchdog agencies to notify employers before labor audits, and also prevent the Department of Labor from entering dwellings without notifying the owner of the farm.

  • While many leaders associated with the AFBF are not actively involved in agriculture production and therefore not personally liable for farmworker exploitation, some leaders closely aligned with the federation have been cited for numerous worksite violations. An example of a “mega-abuser” protected by the Farm Bureau’s lobbying efforts is Harry “Lee” Wicker Jr. who, after serving time in federal prison for a massive and years-long H-2A fraud, is now the executive director of the North Carolina Grower’s Association — the top employer for H-2A workers last year.

  • "Our farmers, they love their workers and they're not opposed to a legalization program," said Wicker, but he added there is concern the law could be utilized by unions looking to organize or help employees retaliate against employers.

  • Leading the charge in Congress as a witness against the FWMA in multiple congressional hearings is Leon Sequeira, a former attorney for Lee Wicker and NCGA and current attorney for USA Farmers. Sequeira often parrots talking points from the AFBF. The MSPA protections in FWMA are “just a horrendous element of this bill that nobody talks about," Sequeira said. "It's a lawyer's dream. It's not too great for you, if you're trying to survive."

  • Another example of producers shielded by the AFBF’s lobbying efforts is Walter P. Rawl & Sons Farm. In 1959, Walter Rawl was named president of the South Carolina Peach Council and chairman of South Carolina Farm Bureau’s Fruit Committee. An FEC search of farm leadership shows frequent contributions to Republican politicians like Lindsey Graham, Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Farm Bureau PAC and United Fresh Produce Association Fresh PAC. Wage and Hours Division of the Department of Labor records show several violations: H-2A (7), MSPA (8), FLSA (420), OSHA (7) and Equal Employment (418). They have had to pay around $180,000 in back wages.

THE AMERICAN FARM BUREAU’S POSITION ON FWMA SHOWS THEIR AGENDA IS OUT OF STEP WITH THE MAJORITY OF RURAL PEOPLE

  • The AFBF is not the voice of agriculture as they claim. In fact, the AFBF is not just a non-profit “farmers organization” but rather a multi-billion dollar network of for-profit insurance companies. Its premiums generate billions of dollars a year. In many states, members of the Farm Bureau board and the board of its affiliated insurance company are one and the same, sharing office buildings and support staff. That’s why the federation claims to have 6 million members in a nation with only 2 million farmers. In many states, anyone who signs up for Farm Bureau insurance automatically becomes a member of AFBF. Members’ annual dues fuel a potent political machine that works, in part, to protect employers from worksite liabilities while selling workers' compensation coverage and employment practices liability insurance.

  • The civic landscape of rural America is changing. With consolidation in agriculture and growing demographic shifts in small towns and rural communities, today the Farm Bureau represents only a tiny fraction of small-town and rural voters. Today only about 1.8 million family farms remain in the country. The largest segment of the civilian workforce in rural counties (22.3 %) is employed in the education services, health care, or social assistance industries.

  • 31% of new residents living in rural communities are immigrants and refugees. Immigrant and refugee families increase K-12 enrollment and tax revenue, allowing many struggling schools to remain open. Foreign-born families fill vacant housing as renters and homeowners, eliminating blight and increasing property values. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act should be a bipartisan win for small towns and rural communities.

  • In recent years, farmworkers have become more settled, with fewer migrating long distances from home to work, and fewer pursuing seasonal follow-the-crop migration. [Graph]

  • The health of America’s farms and the agriculture industry is tied directly to immigration. As of 2019, almost half of all agricultural workers were foreign-born and more than one-fourth (27.3 %) were undocumented. The worsening shortage of H-2A workers leaves many farmers desperate for help, and is a major driver behind calls for immigration reform.

  • People in rural communities support legalizing undocumented immigrants. Election eve polling in 2020 showed that 50% of rural white voters agreed with the statement, “Immigration policy should focus on creating a humane system that is fair to all, including stopping the separation of children from their parents, establishing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who work and live here, and creating new laws to ensure there is a fair process for people to legally enter the country.” 49% said “Our immigration policy should focus on enforcement and border security first, including deporting those here illegally, cracking down on abuse of our asylum laws, and finishing the border wall.” 

  • The majority of farmers in America who utilize H-2A labor hire only a few workers — usually less than five. These small farms would benefit from predictable labor costs, and a cheaper and faster application process provided by the FWMA. The graph below represents the 2021 H-2A data provided by USCIS here

  • This carefully crafted compromise bill would substantially lower labor costs and enhance worker protections. It twice passed out of the House of Representatives with substantial bipartisan support, and enjoys the full support of most farm groups, from dairy and produce to horticulture.

  • This legislation would greatly help the vast majority of farmers across industries. Livestock farmers who cannot currently use the H-2A system would be given much-needed access to skilled, reliable, and legal workers. Without sufficient labor, we have seen crops rot in the fields with no one to pick them and animals with no one to tend to them. These obstacles rooted in a labor shortage drive prices up for American consumers, but when farmers do have access to the labor they need, prices for all Americans go down. 

  • Jackie Klippenstein, a policy executive for the Kansas City, Kansas-based Dairy Farmers of America, said the current farm labor system in the U.S. is flawed, and that dairy farmers in particular have had difficulty finding a consistent pool of farm labor, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. She and others in the industry have been calling for reforms for more than two decades. “We’ve been short on farm labor on the agricultural side for a long, long time,” Klippenstein said.

  • These workers often become like extended family to the farmers; living in their home, eating meals together, and raising their children together. Most farmers treat their farmworkers with the respect that every person deserves.

  • That’s why this legislation is almost unanimously supported by agricultural commodity groups, trade groups, and even groups outside of agriculture that rely on a safe and healthy agriculture sector for their industries.

  • The FWMA presents a pivotal choice to lawmakers:

    • They can side with small towns, rural communities, and the American people

    • Or they can work for the corporate lobbyists Farm Bureau hired to protect bad actor producers who give the entire ag industry a bad name.

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