INDIANOLA — U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told Black farm workers that his office would combat the racist wage and hiring practices by white farm owners during his first visit to the Mississippi Delta Thursday.
The Department of Labor head’s pledge to local workers comes after a Mississippi Today investigation uncovered a pattern of farm owners skirting federal regulations to underpay Black workers in addition to pushing them out of jobs in favor of foreign workers – mainly, white men from South Africa.
“I can’t promise you today that things are going to change overnight,” Walsh told local farm workers. “But l can promise you that it will not be 10 years from now, it will not be five years from now… it will not be one year from now. When I get back to my office in D.C. … we are working on this.”
Walsh met with seven men named in a lawsuit against Indianola’s Pitts Farms at the Mississippi Center for Justice office in Indianola. Also in attendance was U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson.
“What I heard today in this meeting was discrimination. What I heard today in this meeting was racism,” Walsh said. “I don’t know where the senators of the state are. I don’t know where the governor of the state (is), and I certainly don’t know where the congressional delegation in the state is because you have workers in this state that are being taken advantage of and discriminated against.”
The Mississippi Center for Justice, which offers free legal services, has filed two lawsuits that accuse farm owners of not only paying Black workers less than their white counterparts, but also pushing them out of their jobs.
One of the attorneys, Sharkey County native Ty Pinkins, shared new details regarding alleged discrimination on Delta farms that had not previously been shared publicly. The examples mirrored the experiences many of the workers lived through during Jim Crow.
Pinkins said workers reported that while white South Africans were able to use indoor bathrooms, Black local workers were forced to relieve themselves outdoors. Pinkins shared another incident in which he said white South African workers were provided cold water while Black workers were told they needed to buy their own.
Mississippi Today’s investigation – “Exploited” – found at least five Delta farms that paid their local workers, who are mostly Black, less money per hour than foreign workers who came to work in Mississippi on agriculture visas through the H-2A program.
Walsh said his office is examining the program so it can no longer be misused by farms – especially by farms in regions, like the Delta, with high rates of unemployment. The H-2A program is intended to fill gaps in the workforce where enough local workers are not available.
“We’re going to make sure this program is run the way it’s supposed to run and that employers are actually doing their due diligence to make sure workers that worked (for farms) in previous seasons are offered their jobs back,” Walsh told Mississippi Today.
The DOL’s Wage and Hour Division is responsible for investigating labor violations regarding pay and has regional offices across the country. In 2020 and 2021, Walsh said the division had 60 agricultural investigations that recovered $1 million in missing wages to workers.
A Mississippi Today analysis of DOL data found that of the roughly 400 Mississippi farms investigated over 15 years, 81% were found to have violated wage regulations. That is about 10% higher than the national rate.
“I’m no fool,” Walsh added. “I know that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Audrey Hall, the director of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division in Jackson, said her agents are currently investigating several Delta farms though she declined to specify a number. She also said her office hired a new agent based in Greenwood.
“At a state level we don’t have a Mississippi Department of Labor,” Thompson, the congressman, told the gathered crowd of Delta leaders. “That means if not for the federal government, these gentlemen we have here today would not have anyone to complain to.”
Thompson thanked Walsh for coming to Mississippi, but also asked for follow through on labor policies to protect Black farm workers.
Mississippi Today’s investigation found that while the DOL did audit Pitts Farms and others that underpaid Black workers, the audits only spanned two-year time frames. That means they did not cover the full span of time the farms were using H-2A workers.
Pinkins and others have called for that standard two-year scope to be expanded. In addition, Pinkins and the Mississippi Center for Justice want broader audits done across the Delta to fully capture the extent of racist wage and hiring practices.
Among the seven Pitts Farms workers at Thursday’s event were Andrew Johnson, brothers Richard and Gregory Strong, and Wesley Reed, all of whom were featured in Mississippi Today’s investigation. All seven men spoke one-on-one with Walsh Thursday morning.
“It’s June 30, 2022, and this conversation I had in that room a minute ago could have been the same conversation that had happened 50 years ago,” Walsh said following their talk.
Walsh continued his Mississippi visit by attending a roundtable discussion at Jackson State University. There, he met with Black women leading the state’s union and organizing efforts.
Hall, the local DOL director, made a few comments before Walsh joined the panel.
“Sec. Walsh has heard the cry of workers in Mississippi,” she said.
The room applauded.
Editor’s note: The Mississippi Center For Justice President and CEO Vangela Wade serves on Mississippi Today’s board of trustees.