California legislature considers bill that would make farm employers jointly responsible for farm worker conditions

Assemblymember Roger Hernández has proposed legislation (AB 1897) that would make farm employers who use farm labor contractors (FLCs) jointly responsible with the FLCs to ensure (1) that farmworkers are paid proper wages, (2) that all contributions and deductions are reported, and (3) that the FLC obtains valid workers compensation coverage. If passed, employees working on the premises of a farm operator, regardless of whether they were directly hired or hired through an FLC, would be entitled to recourse from either the FLC or the farm operator for a violation of applicable laws.

Farm labor contractors are businesses that employ farm workers and contract out their services to farm operators. Labor contracting has increased across industries, generally, and has become ubiquitous in agriculture in California. Farm owners hire an FLC as an independent contractor who then employs farm workers that do the work that the farm owner needs done, including, planting, weeding, harvesting and packaging. Because the farm owner does not directly employ any of the farmworkers, s/he does not establish an employer-employee relationship with them and is therefore not required to comply with, or ensure compliance with, employment laws.

This detachment from responsibility has had negative impacts on farmworkers' working conditions, their wages, and their ability to organize. Without the employer-employee relationship between the farm owner and the farmworkers, and the legal responsibility that comes with it, there is more room for employers to ignore the healthy, safety, and general well-being of the farmworkers. Moreover, farm owners enter into a contract for services provided by the FLC, so they have legal recourse against the FLC if it does not fully perform its end of the contract. Farmworkers, on the other hand, have no recourse against the owner of the farm they work on if they are injured or not paid. This imbalance of power puts pressure on FLCs to submit the lowest bid for available contracts, resulting in lower wages and poorer working conditions for farmworkers. Lastly, farmworkers have difficulty organizing themselves when there are several FLCs contracting at the same farm, resulting in disparate conditions for workers doing the same jobs.

The Sustainable Economies Law Center is encouraged by Assemblymember Hernández's efforts to protect farmworkers who labor for FLCs by holding the farm owners liable for employment law violations. Nonetheless, we think that the farm labor contracting system as a whole is unjust, and we are currently researching alternatives to traditional FLCs that empower farmworkers, like farmworker-owned cooperative farm labor contractors. Stay tuned!

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