Black Americans Sue Farm Owners For Paying Foreign Workers More

By Prakash Gogoi | November 16, 2021
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Six black Americans say that their farm owners replaced them with foreign workers at higher wages. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Six black Americans working for farms in Mississippi have filed a lawsuit against the farm owners after being replaced by white South African immigrants on an H-2A visa program. According to workers, the farm owners hired these immigrants for the same work they were doing and were paid more than they were, which is in violation of federal law.

The lawsuit was filed by the Mississippi Center for Justice and Southern Migrant Legal Services in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi on November 10. The defendant of the case is Pitts Farm Partnership, one of the largest farms in Mississippi. The farm grows soybeans, corn, and cotton in Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta.

According to the lawsuit, the farm violated regulations of the foreign worker visa program, which stipulates equal consideration to both U.S. workers and immigrants. It sought an unspecified amount to be awarded in damages, which include money that the six black Americans did not receive due to the difference in pay scales as compared to foreign visa workers.

As per the H-2A visa program, U.S. farms are permitted to outsource any number of jobs to foreign workers. These foreign workers are free to extend their stay for a maximum period of three years. The families of workers having the H-2A visa can come over to the U.S. using H-4 visas.

The plaintiffs claim that four of them performed agricultural work on the farm from February until November, for which they were paid the standard minimum wage of $7.25 per hour on weekdays and $8.25 per hour for working on weekends. Meanwhile, the immigrant workers from South Africa were allegedly paid almost $12 per hour.

Speaking to Reuters, Amal Bouhabib of Southern Migrant Legal Services stated that the H-2A program was originally created to solve labor shortages being experienced locally by taking in foreign national laborers for support. “It does not allow farmers to pay their American workforce less than the foreign workers, or to replace willing and able U.S. workers,” Bouhabib said. 

Over 213 thousand foreign visa holders have been brought into the U.S. as of 2020 to work on U.S. farms. This translates to an increase of 1200 percent in terms of H-2A visa issuances from 1997 when around 16,000 foreign visa workers were recruited to work on American farms due to a labor shortage.

Pitts Farms violated the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (AWPA) when they paid American workers less than the H-2A workers. Moreover, they did not make the same effort to hire workers from the U.S. as they did to hire foreign workers.

Ty Pinks, who works with the Mississippi Center for Justice, stated that it was “unacceptable and unlawful” for these farmers to take in foreign workers at a higher pay given the unemployment prevalent in the Mississippi Delta region. 

“Unfortunately, this case is emblematic of a disastrous pattern in the South. Our research indicates that farm owners are increasingly abusing the H-2A program and denying opportunities to U.S. workers. The case also reflects our nation’s deep, ugly history of exploiting Black labor. For too long, powerful businesses have abused Black Americans for profit,” Pinks said in a news release. 

The plaintiffs accused of being subject to racism by the white supervisor who would allegedly use racial slurs when talking about their Black employees. This included usage of the “n word.”

At present, the Biden administration is in the middle of expanding the H-2A visa program to include six additional countries from where laborers can be hired. This includes Herzegovina, Bosnia, Cyprus, Mauritius, Haiti, and Saint Lucia.