Farmworkers in Michigan Risk Being Exploited – Take Action!

Farmworkers Legal Services is a legal aid office that protects migrant and seasonal farmworkers throughout the state of Michigan.  They have sounded the alarm on a dangerous new precedent in Michigan law which threatens the safety and dignity of piece-rate hand harvesters in Michigan who are at risk of exploitation.  Below is an excerpt from their April issue brief on the new dangers to agricultural employees in Michigan. 

Since 1964, Michigan law has helped protect the most vulnerable of Michigan’s workers by ensuring that they receive a fair wage for each hour worked. Michigan’s minimum wage law, known as the Workforce Opportunity Act (WOWA), currently sets a minimum wage rate of $8.50 per hour for most Michigan workers. This state wage protection has been a critical tool for combatting “wage theft” against farmworkers who are among the lowest paid and are frequently employed by farmers who are not covered by federal minimum wage law (FLSA).

After decades of enforcing farmworker’s rights to the minimum hourly wage, in February 2016, Michigan’s Wage and Hour Program (WHP) ruled that a family of five migrant farmworkers were excluded from the protections of WOWA and decline to enforce the workers’ minimum wage claims. The agency’s determination in this case evidenced a radical, new interpretation of Michigan law which would potentially exclude most of Michigan’s nearly 50,000 agricultural workers from the state minimum wage and further depress their already-low wages.

According to the Farmworker Legal Services, The Wage and Hour Program’s arbitrary ruling means that thousands of the nearly 50,000 farmworkers, who annually harvest crops such as asparagus, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, berries and cherries, will work without any state minimum wage protection. Farmworker Legal Services insists that the Wage and Hour agency’s new interpretation of WOWA is not only incorrect, but it is unlawfully discriminatory because the agency’s new enforcement policy disproportionately impacts Hispanic workers. Over 99% of Michigan’s agricultural workers identify as Hispanic/Latino.

The Wage and Hour Progam is mandated to interpret the law consistent with its legislative purpose to protect workers. Instead, WHP has relied on a strained, and arguably discriminatory, interpretation of WOWA to withhold minimum wage protections from one of the state’s most vulnerable populations of workers.

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Carrie Booth Walling is the editor of the Voices of Change blog for the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force.  The information summarized in this blog comes directly from Farmworker Legal Services April 1 issue brief, “Agency Decides the Michigan’s Minimum Wage Law Exempts Piece-Rate Hand Harvesters” and is posted with the agency’s permission.