Kamala Harris, a U.S. senator from California whose father is from Jamaica, is heading a group of lawmakers trying to ensure laborers, including farm workers, get protections they have been entitled to since 1938, but were denied.
Thousands of farm workers from the Caribbean have come to the U.S. to earn a living over decades, providing labor on farms in states such as Florida. The practice was encouraged by Caribbean governments seeking to alleviate the unemployment problem in the region.
The first Caribbean farm workers reportedly arrived in the U.S. in 1943. Jamaicans are believed to make up the largest group of Caribbean guest workers in the U.S. According to encyclopedia.com, in 1943 for example, Jamaica sent 11,000 men to 14 states in the U.S. The farm workers are usually employed to work harvesting seasonal crops.
An estimated three million farm workers are in the U.S. More than 80 percent are believed to be non-Americans. Some 75 percent of farm workers are believed to earn less than $10,000 a year.
Legal farm workers from the Caribbean usually come to the U.S. as an H2A Guestworker, a program set up by the U.S. government to address labor shortage in agriculture. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), five Caribbean countries are eligible to send farm workers to the U.S. under the H2A program: Barbados, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Jamaica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Last month, lawmakers, led by Harris, introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate which would allow farm workers to be paid for overtime work, like most other U.S. workers. The farm workers would also be entitled to new minimum wage rights.
The new bill proposes to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938. That law provided for a minimum wage payment and time-and-a-half pay for overtime work.
Initially, some category of workers, including farm workers and domestic help, did not fully benefit from the Fair Labor Standards Act as some farm owners wanted to restrict compensation for workers. Harris and others pushing for the new legislation. They claim the workers have been exploited enough, including being forced to work up to 12 hours a day.
“This bill will attempt to correct some of the injustices they face and guarantee they will get paid for the hours they work including overtime, and minimum wage which right now they are not entitled to by law,” Harris noted in a statement. “This is a matter of basic fairness and justice.”
The proposed bill has received support from dozens of labor groups. Civil rights groups have also backed the initiative along with some of Harris’s Democratic colleagues in the Senate, including Dianne Feinstein, Chris Van Holland, Richard Blumenthal, Cory Booker, Jeff Merkley, Mazie Hirono and Elizabeth Warren.
However, it is not clear if the bill will get support from Republicans, who control both houses of Congress and the office of the president, who would be required to sign the bill into law.
Under the new bill, farm workers would be required to receive time-and-a-half pay for work done beyond 40 hours.