Agriculture Economy

Workers on a tobacco farm in Garrard County, Kentucky, are entering the third week of a strike over claims that they have not received the pay guaranteed by a federal work visa program. The strike is part of a movement across the South and Midwest to organize migrant laborers who enter the country legally to do seasonal work.

The farmers chanted in Spanish as they marched to deliver a letter to the farm owner.

“Que queremos? Justicia!”

The farmer, Wayne Day, wasn’t home.

7032- correctedElizabeth Sanders

Stephen Bartlett of FLOC (left) with striking farm workers Lamberto Gonzales, Fernando Guzman, Francisco Gonzales, Hernan Quezada, Jose Gonzales, Cristian Santillan, Adolfo Osorio; and Felix Garza of the National Farm Worker Ministry.

Pay Dispute

For the past three years, a group of seven workers has traveled from Nayarit, Mexico, to work on Day’s tobacco farm, about forty miles south of Lexington, Kentucky.

They work for six months at a time under the federal H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers, which allows a foreign national into the country to do seasonal agricultural work.

The Department of Labor program also sets a minimum wage for those workers in each state based on what’s known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate. In Kentucky, that rate is $10.92 an hour.

But striking worker Cristian Santillan said he has not been paid the promised rate. He said the most he’s received is eight dollars an hour. He said workers also have not been reimbursed for the cost of traveling to the farm or given money for work supplies, both costs that are supposed to be covered by the employer under the visa program.

Santillan said he and his co-workers have been picking tobacco without gloves, and even after a full day working the fields, they sometimes can’t sleep at night.

“No, por los químicos,” he said, explaining that they absorb so much of the chemicals that seep out of tobacco leaves.

Another striking worker, Francisco Gonzales, said that the group has received donations of food from the community and the union that helped organize the strike, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, or FLOC. Gonzales said that’s helped, but he’s worried about his three kids who depend on the money he sends home.

More Pressure

The farm owner could not be reached for comment.

Another local tobacco grower, Eddie Warren, represents the area on the board of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association. Warren said it’s been tougher in recent years to realize a profit on tobacco.

“All your input costs have gone up, and the tobacco price has stayed flat for the last several years, so there’s more pressure than there used to be,” he said.

Warren said he’s never heard of a strike on a tobacco farm in the area before.

Growing Movement

An organizer with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee said the union has been working for several years in other states, including Ohio, but just arrived in Kentucky this year.

Organizer Stephen Bartlett said it’s disappointing that this happened to workers in a program that’s supposed to have federal oversight.

“Immigrant workers are exploited in many sectors of the economy,” he said. “In this case, you know, you would think that because they’re under a contract overseen by the Department of Labor they shouldn’t have any problems, but in fact agricultural workers have been exploited throughout U.S. history.”

Bartlett said lawyers for the union and the farm owner are in negotiations.

From Appalshop's WMMT in Whitesburg, KY, Benny Becker covers the economic transition of coal country.