Students call for wage theft awareness

They hope the U will heighten the community’s awareness.

Kia Farhang

Students in a Migrant Farmworkers class will educate community members about labor rights Thursday, launching a campaign that may call on the University of Minnesota administration to get involved.

Labor Rights Violations on Minnesota Industrial Farms will focus specifically on wage theft at industrial farms throughout the state.

Wage theft is when workers aren’t paid wages they’re owed, said Lisa Sass Zaragoza, the Chicano and Latino Studies instructor who teaches the class.

“So they work, but maybe they’ve worked overtime and they haven’t gotten overtime [pay]. … Or maybe they were fired and they didn’t get their last paycheck,” she said.

Most migrant farm workers come to Minnesota from Texas or Mexico to work in seasonal canning jobs in the southern-central part of the state, according to Centro Campesino, a Minnesota group that connects workers to labor resources.

“Even though they play such a huge role in how we produce and distribute food in the United States, they are consistently a group of folks who work in terrible living and working conditions,” Sass Zaragoza said.

Everyone is “intimately connected” to farm work, said freshman Claire Karsting, an organizer of the event.

“It’s important for everyone to be aware of the conditions under which their food is produced,” she said.

Two Minnesota farms paid back unpaid wages to workers in the past two years.

 In January, Hader Farms of Zumbrota agreed to pay more than $17,000 in a settlement with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry for failure to pay overtime wages to farm workers. The Minnesota Court of Appeals ordered Daley Farm of Lewiston to pay more than $86,000 in unpaid overtime to workers last year.

The University could get involved, Karsting said, by conducting a quantitative study and getting data on wage theft occurrence.

“The University has contributed to great agricultural advancements in this state,” Karsting said. “This issue is something that the University is obligated to address.”

The University of Minnesota Extension conducts workshops to educate employers about labor laws, said Extension Dean Bev Durgan. Those laws can be confusing to farms new to hiring.

“I don’t think that we have a large number of employers that are malicious and doing this out of intent,” Durgan said. “I think that they just don’t understand the laws.”

Extension staff members have met with labor organizations in the past, Durgan added.

“I don’t think we have a good handle on how big the problem is, how widespread the problem is,” she said. “I think that one of the issues is how to best come up with that data.”

The University has a responsibility to teach the community about wage theft, said Ernesto Vélez, executive director for Centro Campesino, “or to maybe even just say, ‘This is something that happens … every day, to people around the state.’”

Once students are aware of the issue, Vélez said they can make a call to action or report problems when they see them.

The University could start by making students, especially those in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, aware of the issue, said Paige Varin, one of the event’s organizers and a biology and Spanish freshman.

“Right now there’s a bunch of material on how to be sustainable,” Varin said, “but there’s hardly anything when it has to do with the actual workers.”