Jul 7, 2020
Organic Trade Association leaders back farm labor reform
The Board of Directors of the Organic Trade Association has voted unanimously to take strong action to support the health, safety and legal standing of the nation’s farmworkers, and called for more attention to be paid to the well-being of this vital workforce that is toiling under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The association’s board voted in June to support the Farm Workforce Modernization Act and to support other advocacy efforts to elevate the issue of agricultural workforce safety, particularly in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“Agricultural workers are essential in keeping the food supply chain full and operating efficiently, and they should be recognized for the incredible challenges they’re dealing with,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association. “Our Board recognizes the need for legislative action to safeguard farmworkers in normal times, and the extra measures that now need to be taken due to the increased vulnerability of these critical workers during this global health crisis.”
“While organic farms and businesses are going to considerable efforts to keep their workers safe, we’re calling on Congress to support these efforts,” added Batcha. “We not only need a long-term solution to address the labor shortages in the agriculture sector due to the lack of comprehensive immigration reform. Congress should also include assistance to protect agricultural workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Acting on a recommendation of the association’s Farmers Advisory Council (FAC), the Board said that the Organic Trade Association’s advocacy of the agricultural labor bill should be paired with efforts to make Congress more aware of the challenges to the safety of the agricultural workforce due to the COVID-19 pandemic and to push for measures such as more personal protective equipment and assistance in keeping farmworkers healthy and safe.
The association’s Farmer Advisory Council was formed in 2013 to provide a stronger voice for farmer members in the association’s policymaking. Farm labor has been one of the top issues of the group since its first meeting. In 2019, FAC established a working group to advance its understanding of the key challenges facing organic farm labor and evaluate opportunities to support positive changes through legislative solutions. In March of this year, FAC members voted unanimously to recommend that the Organic Trade Association support the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.
Agricultural Workforce Safety
Given the current operating reality of COVID-19, many of the challenges facing farmworkers have been exacerbated. Listening sessions with Organic Trade Association members have revealed concerns over implementing new social distancing, sanitation, and safety procedures for essential workers, resulting in FAC calling for these needs to be addressed in its overall workforce policy. Congress has introduced several measures to help businesses protect their employees and adjust to enhanced safety measures during this time. Legislation such as the Food Supply Protection Act introduced by Senator Debbie Stabenow will provide much-needed grants and loans for small- and medium-sized food processors and businesses to purchase personal protective equipment and retool their facilities in response to the pandemic.
“Since the kickoff meeting of FAC, farm labor has been one of our top focus issues,” said Ohio dairy farmer Perry Clutts, co-chairman of FAC and holder of the dedicated Farmer Board seat on the board. “We’ve had many hours of discussion through the years on the challenges facing our organic farm labor force. These conversations led to the formation of a special working group to dig deep into the issues, and to explore how we could advocate for positive changes. That working group led to our specific recommendations on how to keep our agricultural workforce safe, fairly paid and legally protected. Then COVID-19 hit, and we saw a whole new set of challenges that need to be addressed. We’ve come a long way from discussions to now a real call for action.”
“FAC represents some 8,000 farmers across diverse sectors and geographic regions. Reaching a unanimous consensus decision in such a diverse group on this complex issue shows the hard work and commitment of the FAC members, and a real desire to meaningfully address this issue,” said Johanna Mirenda, Farm Policy Director for the Organic Trade Association.
Farm Workforce Modernization Act
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bipartisan bill passed in the House last December, addresses systemic labor issues in the agricultural labor force. It is the first bill on farm labor issues to pass the House in 33 years, and has been endorsed by almost every major agriculture commodity organization as well as United Farmworkers and other labor organizations.
The act establishes a pathway to permanent legal status for the current agricultural workforce, and streamlines and reforms the H2A visa program (the primary guest worker program) to provide flexibility and easier access for workers and employers, including providing H2A visas for year-round farm labor needs, not just temporary or seasonal workers.
Organic regulations, while not a labor standard, include components that indirectly influence labor conditions. Fewer toxic pesticides equal less exposure to harmful chemicals, according to a study published by The Organic Center in 2018. But the challenges that face today’s agriculture and food system workforce, including labor shortages and immigration issues, go beyond organic.
“Agricultural workers have never been more important, and it is critical that we support their well-being,” said Montana organic farmer, co-chairman of FAC and Board member Doug Crabtree. “The Organic Trade Association will actively work with Congress to ensure that the needs of this vital workforce are met.”
Above, Honduran workers harvest apples near Aspers, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 15, 2019. Photo: USDA/Lance Cheung