Farm Labor Contractors and Crew Leaders

SIC 0761

Industry report:

This category describes establishments primarily engaged in supplying labor for agriculture production of harvesting. Establishments primarily engaged in machine harvesting are classified in Industry 0722 (see SIC 0722: Crop Harvesting, Primarily by Machine).

Approximately 2,200 farm labor contractors (FLCs) and crew leaders operated in the United States in 2008, down 10 percent (2,450) from 2001, according to a 2010 quarterly census report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Agriculture Statistical Services. These establishments employed approximately 159,000 in 2008, up from 145,000 in 2001. The industry is heavily concentrated in the western United States, particularly in California, which hosted 365 FLCs in the early 2010s and accounted for over 75 percent of all employees. Texas, Florida, and Oregon were second, third, and fourth, respectively, in terms of number of FLCs. According to figures from Dun and Bradstreet, FLCs and crew leaders represented a $597.8 million industry in 2010.

According to the USDA, more than 40 percent of farm workers are foreign-born, and most are from Mexico. As a result, FLCs and crew leaders must overcome language barriers and handle paperwork as they recruit, hire, fire, supply, pay, and transport workers for the agriculture labor market. Contractors are required by federal law, particularly the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA) of 1983, as well as various state laws, to ensure that all employees performing under their administration are certified in accordance with regulations. However, according to the USDA, almost half the farm workers in the early 2010s lacked U.S. citizenship and were classified as unauthorized to work in the United States.

Nationally, labor use on farms and ranches changed dramatically after World War II. In 1950, nearly 10 million workers were employed on farms and ranches, but by 1969, this figure had been reduced to roughly three million. The number continued to drop in subsequent decades and held at a little more than one million in the early 2000s. In April 2010, there were 997,000 hired workers on U.S. farms. This decrease was the result of the trend toward fewer and larger agricultural enterprises and the increasing use of technological innovation. One result of increasing concentration and the development of very large farming enterprises has been the switch from family labor to the increased use of temporary workers. In the first decade of the 2000s, roughly 20 percent of all farms relied on contract labor, a sizable increase from two percent in 1980.

A farm labor shortage occurred in California's Central Valley, in 2005 the richest agricultural region in the United States, due to a dwindling immigrant workforce. Increased border security in 2006 kept many illegal Mexican migrant workers out of California, according to farmers and labor contractors, and other migrant workers left for jobs in the service industry. California farms can employ 450,000 people at the peak of the harvest, and migrant farm workers can work for up to seven months moving from harvest to harvest.

Observers have long levied a variety of criticisms at FLCs, most of them stemming from contractors' heavily reliance on migrant labor, including illegal immigrants. Illegal immigration was a hot national topic during the late 2000s and remained a key political issue in the early 2010s. The percentage of farm laborers who were migrant workers, a classification that includes all agricultural workers who must travel such a distance as to make it impractical to return to their residence the same day, fluctuates from about six percent in the winter months to about 12 percent in the summer.

One of the most frequent criticisms aimed at FLCs and crew leaders is the allegation that they allow growers to sidestep labor laws. Critics say many FLCs short workers on pay or extract profits from workers for such things as tool rent, transportation, and lodging. Further, critics claim that FLCs contribute to worker poverty, income inequality, poor conditions, a regular influx of new undocumented immigrants, and decline of the farm labor movement.

Contractors insist they have been unfairly criticized. An advocacy group, the National Farm Labor Contractors Association, established in 1967 and based in Fresno, California, lobbies lawmakers on behalf of FLCs, gives legal advice, and provides training, newsletters, phone numbers, and reference materials. In 2002, several California lawmakers introduced a series of bills as part of the California Agricultural Relations Act, designed to increase the bargaining power of roughly 500,000 field workers. The passage of these bills in the fall of that year prompted the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) to launch its largest organizing effort in 20 years. In April 2006, the UFW signed an agreement with the Agricultural Labor Cooperative of America (ALCA), a group formed to provide laborers to its members, and Global Horizons Inc., a Los Angeles-based farm labor contractor. Under the agreement, the three organizations cooperated in providing laborers to farmers.

Worker welfare was a pressing issue in the industry in the 2000's first decade. In 2005, California became the first state in the country to develop a safety and health regulation addressing occupational heat illness, and in 2006, it issued permanent heat illness prevention regulations to protect outdoor workers. As a part of this effort, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger created the Economic and Employment Enforcement Coalition (EEEC), a task force designed to expose and penalize individuals or companies--including FLCs--that were violating California labor laws, as well as to provide training and education on the stipulations of those laws. Between January and June 2009, the EEEC issued 250 citations and shut down eight FLCs for heat illness violations. The previous year, the EEEC forced Merced Farm Labor to stop operations following the death of a 17-year-old pregnant woman who had been working nine hours in a vineyard with little water and no shade. For the first time in California's history, criminal charges were filed in relation to a farm worker-related death. The vineyard's owner and two supervisors were charged with involuntary manslaughter; the trial was ongoing in 2010.

In August 2010, New York's Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act failed to pass the New York State Senate on a vote of 31-28. Provisions of the bill, which was opposed by FLCs and agriculture lobbyists alike, included creating an eight hour workday for farm laborers as well as requiring farmers to provide employees with at least 24 consecutive hours of rest each week and time-and-a-half pay for overtime. The bill would also extend collective bargaining rights to workers on farms grossing more than $650,000.

A similar measure was pending in the California Statehouse in 2010. According to a bill making its way through California's legislature, the state's 700,000 farm workers would become the first in the nation to be paid overtime after working eight hours. During the busy season, workers tend to work 10 hour days, six days a week. While the FLCs opposed the bill as placing a heavy financial burden on the industry, workers themselves were split. Although many supported the measure as a step forward toward treating farm work in a manner that most other industries are treated in the United States (e.g., with overtime pay), others were fearful that farm owners would cut their hours or hire more migrant laborers to avoid paying overtime wages.

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