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“Efficient Farms Need Not Pay Starvation Wages”: The Fair Labor Standards Act and Migratory Agricultural Workers

Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) on June 25, 1938, the last major piece of New Deal legislation. The act outlawed child labor and guaranteed a minimum wage of 40 cents an hour and a maximum work week of 40 hours, benefiting more than 22 million workers. Although the law helped establish a precedent for the Federal regulation of work conditions, conservative forces in Congress effectively exempted many workers, such as waiters, cooks, janitors, farm workers, and domestics, from its coverage. In October 1949, President Harry S. Truman signed into law the Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1949, raising the minimum wage to 75 cents hour and extending coverage, but still leaving many workers unprotected. In the following statement to the 1949 Senate subcommittee on FLSA amendments, the chairman of a small advocacy organization appealed to Congress to extend the minimum wage and child labor provisions to cover agricultural workers.

Statement of Rev. Thomas B. Keehn, Chairman, National Citizens Council for Migrant Labor

The National Citizens Council for Migrant Labor was organized 2 years ago by individuals and organizations who were working with the problems facing the 1,000,000 families who move from area to area helping harvest the Nation’s crops. From its members' combined experience the council has realized the need for amending the Fair Labor Standards Act to extend minimum wage provisions to cover agricultural workers and to strengthen the child-labor provisions in their application to children working the fields.

Most of the migratory agricultural workers work on large-sized commercial farms which employ hundreds of workers if only for a short time during planting or harvesting. These migrants who work in “factories in the fields” should be given the same protection of a minimum wage as the worker in industry.

Migratory agricultural workers, who are driven by the ever-present need for food for tonight’s dinner to accept any wage offered, have a special need for an established floor below which no commercial farm can legally pay them. In 1945, the peak year for farm wage rates, migrants working 40 hours a week or more earned an average of only $13 per week in Texas carrots; $19 in Louisiana sugarcane; $20 in North Carolina peaches; $22 in Pennsylvania peaches. Since then, real farm wages, taking into account the cost of living have dropped 16 percent.

The migratory agricultural workers do not even fare as well as these figures seem to show. Most migrants are unable to find work for more than a fraction of the year. In 1945, a year when agricultural jobs were most plentiful, slightly more than 74 percent of the 550,000 hired farm workers who were employed on three or more farms worked less than 75 days during the year. The Bureau of Agricultural Economics found in a 1945 study that 25 out of 37 harvests provided an average of less than 40 hours of work a week per worker. The annual income of migrant families in Texas cotton and winter vegetables, for example, in 1944, added up to $950.

While low wages are often paid to migrants, many farms operating on a profitable basis do pay relatively high wages. In 1945, the same year migrants were being paid less than $20 in carrots and sugarcane fields, they were earning an average of over $40 a week in the fruit orchards of Washington. A survey made by the Council last summer found that wages of as high as $1 an hour were being paid in Delaware and New York. In some cases, workers were paid 70 cents an hour in Maryland, 75 cents an hour in Wisconsin, 80 cents an hour in Illinois. These are not the usual rates, but they do prove that efficient farms need not pay starvation wages to stay in business. Moreover, these farms which have learned to pay adequate wages at present are facing competition with farms who cut prices by squeezing their labor, not by improving their efficiency.

Because the migrant agricultural workers especially need the protection of a minimum wage and because it is economically possible for farms to pay a minimum wage, the National Citizens Council for Migrant Labor urges your committee to extend minimum-wage provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act to cover workers employed not on family-type farms but on those large commercial farms described by the Census Bureau as class I farms. These farms employ approximately 53 percent of agricultural labor. Because of the very nature of migratory labor, probably 75 percent or more of the 1,000,000 migratory workers are employed on these large industrialized, factory-in-the-field farms.

Agricultural labor generally and migrant workers in particular represent the most forgotten group in our society. They are not protected by social security; they are handicapped by State health, welfare, and educational requirements. They do not have the guaranty offered other workers by the Labor-Management Act. Surely it is time to begin to count these workers in the fields. Amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act is an excellent place to begin. We hope that S. 653 will be amended to cover migratory and other agricultural labor . . . .

All over the country, migrant children are found who have never had the opportunity for education. The National Child Labor Committee in its 1941 study of migrant children picking strawberries in Arkansas and Kentucky found that one-third of the children between the ages of 12 to 16 had completed only the second grade or less and only one-half had completed the third grade or less. In a study covering 14 Michigan counties, Edgar G. Johnston of the University of Michigan found that, although the school census included 2,570 migratory children, only a little more than one-fourth were enrolled in school. In a later study, Dr. Johnston found that the median length of school attendance of 65 migrant children was only 5.3 weeks.

The National Citizens Council for Migrant Labor believes that all children in a democracy should be protected from employment that interferes with their attendance at school. If the Fair Labor Standards Act were amended to prohibit employment of children during school hours, the migrant children would be free to take advantage of the educational opportunities which are the right of every child in the United States.

Source: Fair Labor Standards Act Amendments of 1949, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, United States Senate, 81<sup>st</sup>Congress, 1<sup>st</sup> Session, on S. 58, S. 67, S. 92, S. 105, S. 190, S. 248 and S. 653, April 11–14 and 18–22, 1949. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949.