agricultureMany of New Mexicos’s agricultural employers are excluded from the enforcement and oversight activities of OSHA, leaving many workers toiling in unsafe conditions – and often earning below minimum wage, says a new report.

According to the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, 15% of the workers surveyed for the report said they’d been injured while on the job.

Other findings:

  • 29% of the farm workers surveyed worked in a field with no drinking water in the last year.
  • 61% of the farm workers surveyed did not have access to hand washing stations in the fields on at least one occasion in the last year, which has health implications for both the workers and the public that consumes agricultural products.
  • 52% of the farm workers surveyed worked on at least one field in the last year where they were not given any breaks for the entire day. 38% of those who did get a break stated that they did not have access to shade during those breaks.

Workers present while pesticides used in fields

A key focus of the report is on pesticide poisoning, which is described as “pervasive” in New Mexico.

  • One-fifth of farm workers reported having worked in a field in the last year where pesticides were being applied at the same time the workers were working, in violation of the law.
  • 47% of workers reported having experienced at least one pesticide-related health problem after working in a field that had been sprayed with pesticides.

And on the subject of health insurance: 88% of workers reported having none.

“New Mexico’s agricultural workers labor in some of the most difficult, dangerous and abusive working conditions of all workers,” notes the report. “They are paid devastatingly low wages, perform backbreaking work and toil in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. They are often victims of wage theft and are retaliated against when they try to assert their rights. Additionally, there are very few laws that protect them and many that specifically exclude them from their protections.”

Outdated laws

The reports authors say that existing agricultural regulation is outdated, because it was based on the system of small family farmers which has largely been replaced by giant corporate farms operated by agribusinesses.

“Despite this drastic change, the laws that were created to protect small farms remain on the books today though they are no longer needed and are a great detriment to the agricultural workers to which they apply. Large agribusiness now takes advantage of these laws to maximize profits on the backs of the workers.”

These laws include:

  • The exclusion of dairy workers from the New Mexico minimum wage.
  • The exclusion of all agricultural workers from overtime protections in both federal and state law.
  • The exclusion of all agricultural workers form the right to participate in collective bargaining with their employers under the National Labor Relations Act.

The average household income for the New Mexican farm workers who participated in this survey was $8,978, lower than the national average.

Wage theft widespread

The report says that wage theft -- the unlawful failure to pay wages rightfully owed to a worker – is a widespread problem in New Mexico. Wage theft includes minimum wage violations, illegal deductions, working off the clock, and not being paid at all. "New Mexican farm workers have the right to the state minimum wage of $7.50 per hour, but many of them are not receiving it."

  • In the last year, 67% of New Mexican farm workers were victims of wage theft in New Mexico’s fields.
  • 95% of New Mexican farm workers reported that in the last year they were never paid for the time they spent in the field waiting to begin work at the start of the day, despite the fact that employers are required by law to pay workers for this time.
  • Nearly one-fifth of workers reported that at least one of their employers had failed to report their income to the Social Security Administration in the last year, making it more difficult for the farmworker does not qualify for Social Security benefits upon reaching retirement age.

Recommended changes

The authors of the report recommended the following public policy changes to improve working conditions for the state’s agricultural workers.

  • Amend the New Mexico Minimum Wage Act to include dairy workers under the protections of this law, which mandates that workers be paid the state minimum wage of $7.50 per hour.
  • Amend the New Mexico Minimum Wage Act to include overtime protections for agricultural workers. Currently, agricultural workers are exempt from the overtime provision of the law which mandates that workers be paid time-and-a-half for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week.
  • Pass a law in New Mexico similar to California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act which would give agricultural workers the right to participate in collective bargaining. Under the federal National Labor Relations Act, agricultural workers are prohibited from participating in collective bargaining.
  • Pass laws that mandate breaks and shade for field workers.
  • Pass a law that would allow the New Mexico Occupational Health and Safety Bureau to enforce occupational health and safety laws on New Mexico’s farms with fewer than 11 employees. (Currently, New Mexico-OSHA is prohibited from enforcing health and safety laws on farms and ranches with fewer than 11 employees.)
  • Convince the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration (WCA) to enforce the ruling of a New Mexico state court judge who recently held that excluding agricultural workers from workers’ compensation protections is unconstitutional. Despite the ruling, the WCA continues to maintain its position that New Mexican farm, ranch and dairy workers do not have a right to workers’ compensation.
  • Support comprehensive immigration reform that allows undocumented farm workers and their families to earn legal immigration status and citizenship.