Today, The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty joined Maryland Legal Aid Bureau (MD Legal Aid) and migrant farmworker advocates in calling for the U.S. Department of State to respond to a United Nations (U.N.) communication regarding a MD Legal Aid complaint about human rights violations occurring in migrant labor camps. On December 27, 2012, the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, and on the Human Rights of Migrants issued a letter to the U.S. government. The Special Rapporteurs’ letter detailed migrant agricultural farmworkers’ lack of access to legal, labor, healthcare, anti-trafficking, religious, and social services, with emphasis on farmworkers who live in temporary employer-owned housing or migrant labor camps. The U.S. government has yet to respond or actively address this issue, leaving migrant workers with limited or no access to their civil and human rights.
Migrant farmworkers are among the poorest laborers in the United States and are therefore among the most vulnerable – like individuals experiencing homelessness – to human rights violations. Farmworkers are often undocumented migrants with low levels of education and limited proficiency in English. Additionally, many migrant farmworkers live in rural areas and are dependent on their employers for transportation and access to public services and resources. When employers are unwilling to assist, farmworkers must rely on outreach and advocacy efforts. Advocates, however, are frequently prevented by employers and law enforcement officials from providing the necessary legal assistance to farmworkers. In fact, outreach workers are often harassed, accused of trespassing, and threatened with arrest or sometimes even violence.
The U.N. Special Rapporteurs highlighted the legal limitations these individuals face and have questioned the U.S. government’s role in protecting migrant farmworkers’ human rights and human dignity. Under international human rights law, specifically the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the United States has a legal obligation to ensure that all individuals are able to access legal protections without discrimination.
The federal government provides few comprehensive legal protections for all migrant farmworkers. Indeed, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, the principle federal employment law which encompasses adequate housing, transportation and wage protections, does not apply to migrant farm workers working for “small” agricultural employers. Thus, a significant number of farmworkers are defenseless when violations of their rights occur.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty joins MD Legal Aid and its coalition partners in urging the U.S. government to respond to the U.N. Special Rapporteurs’ communication and effectively resolve this concerning issue. Without federal intervention, migrant farmworkers will continue to experience human rights violations at the hands of their employers.
-Nicole McAllister, Human Rights Legal Intern