At a public hearing in Augusta on Wednesday, several commercial farm owners spoke in opposition to a bill that would give Maine’s agricultural workers greater protection under the state’s wage and hour laws.
The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Thom Harnett (D-Gardiner), said that he was motivated to introduce the legislation in an attempt to address the legacy of slavery and the ongoing systemic exploitation of agricultural workers, many of whom are migrants on temporary work visas with no ability to organize for higher wages or better working conditions.
But some opponents of the measure rejected the characterization of agricultural labor as being rooted in racist exploitation.
Responding to a question from state Rep. Larry Lockman (R-Amherst) about how he felt about that history, Harold Grams, a chiropractor who owns a 40-acre vegetable farm in Vienna, Maine, told members of legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee, “My wife is the English buff — she reads these things. There were plenty of slave owners that were good to their people.”
Assistant Senate Republican Leader Jeff Timberlake (R-Androscoggin), who owns Ricker Hill Orchards, said he was also offended and angered by the implication that agricultural employers benefit from laws shaped by racist exploitation.
Harnett has introduced two bills this legislative session that aim to help what he believes are Maine’s most hidden and exploited workers. One bill, LD 1211, would give farmworkers the right to organize and advocate for better working conditions. Another, LD 1251, would provide overtime to farmworkers.
“When labor laws were initially enacted in the first part of the last century and through the New Deal, farm workers and certain other occupations were always excluded from the protections,” Harnett recently told Beacon. “Those occupations were typically performed by people of color. Field workers grew from slavery. The vestige of slavery is seen in those laws, because they have been specifically and intentionally excluded from sharing the basic protections that all other employees take for granted.”
Migrant farmworkers are ‘ripe for exploitation’
During the hearing, Harnett explained how farmworkers are uniquely vulnerable to abuse.
“Currently, in 2019 in Maine, farmworkers are still not considered employees under state law,” Harnett testified before the committee. “Farm workers, particularly migrant farm workers who travel from state to state to harvest the crops that feed us, are generally people of color, often from other countries and, in many cases, do not speak English as their native language. They are ripe for exploitation and do not generally make waves. They work far from home, and their home while in Maine is often connected to their job.”
Last December, eight migrant workers, living on the grounds of Worcester Wreath Company in Columbia and Harrington, were fired after confronting their crew boss about an alleged pattern of sexual harassment.
Testifying in opposition to Harnett’s proposed worker protections, Lisa Turner, president of the Maine Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association, revealed to the committee that she has paid a field worker below the state minimum wage, which is currently legal.
“Last year we had a young women who had a learning disability that she did not disclose during the interview,” she said, explaining that she decided to lower the woman’s pay to $9 an hour from her starting wage of $12 an hour. “She simply was not performing at a level that I could keep her on at $12 an hour.” Maine’s minimum wage was $10 an hour last year.
She then chastised Labor committee members, “All I can figure is that legislators just don’t understand farming.”
The Maine AFL-CIO, which represents over 40,000 workers in the state, is supporting Harnett’s legislation.
“It is important that we understand the historical reasons that agricultural workers were carved out of much of labor law protections, including the right to organize and collectively bargain,” the union federation’s state political director, Adam Goode, told the committee. “The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), passed in 1935, is the primary federal law that establishes workers’ right to organize a union and lays out clear processes and procedures for collective bargaining. In drafting the NLRA, Congress deferred to such laws by excluding two categories of predominantly non-white workers — ‘agricultural laborers’ and ‘domestics’ — from labor protections.”
He added, “These exclusions are rooted in the history of race and racism in this country.”
(Photo by Beth Kanter | Creative Commons via flickr)