This story could have come straight from an episode of Queen Sugar: In Mississippi, Black fieldhands are suing their white, landowner employers for allegedly violating federal law by hiring and giving foreign workers higher pay for the same work. Adding insult to injury: many of the immigrant workers being brought in are whites from South Africa, a country with its own disastrous history of abusing Black people.
The main issue, according to the New York Times’ story on the lawsuit, is the federal H2-A immigrant worker program, which lets foreign agricultural workers come to the U.S. for up to 10 months and has gotten more popular as labor shortages swept the U.S.
Now Black workers, whose families have worked the same land for generations, say they’re either being pushed out or illegally underpaid.
From the New York Times:
Farmers must also show that they have tried, and failed, to find Americans to perform the work and they must pay domestic workers the same rate they are paying the imported laborers.
According to the Black workers’ lawsuit, Pitt Farms paid the South Africans $9.87 an hour in 2014, a rate that reached $11.83 in 2020. The plaintiffs who worked in the fields were paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour or $8.25 on weekends, plus occasional bonuses.
It’s far from the first time U.S. Black farmers got the short end of the stick. While the new lawsuit focuses on the laborers working the land for companies that actually own it, Black farmers who own their land have faced discrimination in lending, government policy and from suppliers for decades. A report out this week (Nov. 10) from consulting firm McKinsey & Co., spells out the damage: “The median net worth for farmers is 43 times that of Black households, representing a potential opportunity for Black Americans to build net worth,” the report says.
And despite government approval for billions of dollars in pandemic-related farm subsidies, Black farmers are still looking for help that may not come, according to an NBC News report.