Campaign for Migrant Worker Justice
Combining legal tools and public campaigns to secure justice for migrant agricultural workers
The vast majority of agricultural workers in the United States, approximately 78%, are migrant workers from Mexico and Central America. Despite being the backbone of the food industry, they continue to be the some of the lowest paid, least protected, and unhealthiest workers in the United States. Agricultural workers are largely excluded from laws that protect other workers. Their right to collectively bargain isn’t protected, they have no right to overtime pay, small farm workers are not entitled to receive minimum wage and children as young as twelve are legally allowed to work in the fields.
If workers wish to address their exploitation at work, they face many barriers to making complaints. Many are undocumented and their immigration status makes them vulnerable to threats of deportation. In addition, language barriers and residence in isolated housing, without access to transportation, provides further barriers to accessing legal recourse. Agricultural workers seeking to make civil legal claims are often impeded by long and expensive processes, which are difficult to navigate and often take years to process. As many migrant workers move frequently for seasonal work, this option can prove impossible to see through. Their vulnerable situation, combined with barriers to organising, making complaints or taking a case to court, leaves agricultural workers trapped, unable to challenge their employers or fight for their rights.
Campaign for Migrant Worker Justice (CMWJ) works in the US states of Ohio and North Carolina, as well as Mexico to empower migrant workers to address legal violations and unfair working conditions. Since 1980, CMWJ has been training workers on their legal rights, the legal system, and assisting bringing legal claims to court. CMWJ recognises that despite a handful of legal cases being successful each year, employers continue to break the law and exploit their workforce, as the compensation they are forced to pay by the court barely dents the amount they can gain from continually exploiting their workforce. Therefore, CMWJ also uses other approaches to maximise their impact. They publicise rights violations and flaws in current legal protection and enforcement, as a way to build toward broader change and creating pressure to resolve specific legal violations.
During a community training session, where common workplace violations were explained to workers, a group came forward to CMWJ with a complaint of wage theft. After identifying that thousands of dollars were not being paid, CMWJ sent a letter to their employer, requesting a meeting to resolve the issue. Immediately, the employer began to threaten to call immigration on the migrant workers who made the complaint. A lawsuit was filed in federal court, which began to move slowly. During this time, CMWJ staff began to research the purchasers of the vegetables grown by the employer, organise public actions and notify local press. The additional pressure of having reporters, purchasers, and the general public outraged at the employers behaviour, lead the employer to seek a quick resolution of the claim, agreeing to pay all of his employees for lost wages. This occurred within three months and was settled before the first court date, rather than taking years to move through the courts.
Through combining traditional legal training and support for lawsuits with research, corporate campaigning, collective bargaining, and public actions, CMWJ has been able to create pressure for vital long-term change.