The Racist Origins of Agricultural Exceptionalism

Legal historians note that the longstanding exclusion of farmworkers from key labor laws – often referred to as “agricultural exceptionalism” – was not simply intentional, but explicitly racist. During the New Deal era, President Roosevelt and Congress repeatedly heeded Southern Democrats’ demands to exclude domestic workers and agricultural workers – the majority of whom were black in southern states – from basic labor protections and benefits. Southern Democrats sought to preserve segregationist Jim Crow policies and ensure the continued exploitation of black labor.

This agenda was put on public display during Congressional debates over the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938. Representative J. Mark Wilcox of Florida voiced his concern that federal protections would make it difficult to perpetuate the wage discrimination his state depended on, since  “the Federal Government knows no color line…” The Fair Labor Standards Act established minimum wage, overtime pay and employer recordkeeping requirements, as well as prohibitions on “oppressive child labor.” Yet, in a nod to Southern lawmakers, the Act included a pointed exclusion for agricultural workers – even under the child labor provisions.

Over the past eighty years, Congress has taken steps to correct for some of these racist omissions and provide protections to farmworkers and others. First, in 1966, Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to apply the minimum wage and recordkeeping provisions to farmworkers. Then, in 1983, Congress passed the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act which established, among other things, health and safety standards for housing and gave farmworkers the right to receive written notice of the terms of their employment and, ultimately, file suit for employer violations of the law.

Farmworkers are Still Denied Basic Labor Protections

Yet, gaping holes remain in federal labor protections for the United States’ 1.13 million farmworkers. Farmworkers still do not have the right to overtime pay or collective bargaining; without the latter, farmworkers can be legally retaliated against for organizing, or even complaining about work conditions or asking for a raise.

It is no coincidence that, across the country, farmworkers make meager wages and endure punishing working conditions. According to the 2015-2016 National Agricultural Workers Survey, one-third of farmworkers had family incomes below the Federal Poverty Level; the average family income was between $20,000 and $24,999. Agriculture ranks among the most dangerous industries for workers, with a work-related fatality rate of 21.4 deaths per 100,000 workers. Farmworkers face a number of health and safety risks, including pesticide poisoning, heat and sun exposure, hazardous tools and machinery, musculoskeletal injuries and respiratory illnesses. In addition, an epidemic of sexual harassment and violence is finally coming to light.

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