Photo credit: Oksana Shu on Twenty20

Laborers sue Mississippi farm for racial discrimination, abuse, and unequal pay

Agribusiness segregates workforce, hires white South African farm workers instead of Black Mississippians.

The more things change.  .  . 

Sunflower County, Mississippi has a decades-long history of forcing its majority-Black population to stay in its “place.” In the 1950s, Dr. Clinton Battle, a Black physician, attempted to establish an NAACP branch in the county. His effort ended when the White Citizens Council, called a “white collar Ku Klux Klan” by some, convinced the local branch members to leave and end their activism. The branch was closed. Dr. Battle was run out of town by the Council. 

During the early 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) tried registering Black county residents to vote. Again, white threats and intimidation made it difficult. Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper in Ruleville, a town in Sunflower County, was told by her white employer that if she refused to stop working with the young college students to register other Black residents, she would lose her job and be removed from the plantation. So she left. 

Seventy years after the first effort to desegregate the county and empower its Black Mississippi  Delta residents through voting, not much has changed in Sunflower County, as indicated by a civil suit filed on September 8 of this year by six Black farm workers. The complaint is against the white-owned agribusiness, Pitts Farm Partnership. Said to be the largest farm in Mississippi, the company owns thousands of acres of land, on which are grown tobacco, sugar cane, beets, and cotton, among other crops. It generates $1.27 million annually in sales.

The lawsuit

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege that Pitts Farm Partnership hired white South African farm workers under the H2-A immigration program to avoid hiring local Black farm workers. Plus, they were being paid less than the South Africans, even though Black employees were ordered to train them.  Additionally, the suit alleges that the group was called racist names by some of the company’s employers.

One of the plaintiffs, Richard Strong, discovered that the South African farm workers whom he trained were paid more than he for performing the same tasks. Quoted recently in Law Enforcement Today, Strong said, “I never did imagine that it would come to the point where they would be hiring foreigners, instead of people like me. It’s like being robbed of your heritage.”

At the time the suit was filed, Amal Bouhabib of Southern Migrant Legal Services, said the federal government H2-A visa program allows farmers to hire immigrant workers if they can prove they experienced trouble in  finding U.S. citizens. “It does not allow farmers to pay their American workforce less than the foreign workers, or to replace willing or able workers,” he said. The Southern Migrant Legal Services joined with the Mississippi Center for Justice to file the suit on behalf of the Black farm workers.

Bouhabib disagreed with Pitts Farm’s hiring practices, explaining  that unemployment in the region is close to 10 percent. It is “unacceptable and unlawful” to hire foreign workers and pay them more when there are plenty of local farm workers seeking jobs, explained Bouhabib. He called the case emblematic of a “disastrous” pattern in the South. “Our research indicates that farm owners are increasingly abusing the H-2A program and denying opportunities to U.S. workers.”

The Mississippi Center for Justice advocates for low-income Black Mississippians.  In a news release, the Center’s consumer protection attorney Ty Pinkins, said “The case also reflects our nation’s deep, ugly history of exploiting Black labor. For two long, powerful businesses have abused Black Americans for profit.”

| Read: Farming while Black still poses challenges in the agricultural industry

The plaintiffs in the case are Wesley Reed, Gregory Strong, Richard Strong, Andrew Johnson, Stacy Griffin, and James Simpson. The suit asks that the court find Pitts Farm Partnership guilty of violating the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act, various federal civil rights laws, and paying the Black farm workers lower wages compared to the wages paid to the South African farmworkers. Pitts Farm Partnership paid its Black farmworkers the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, but the South African farm workers were paid between $9.87 per hour in 2014, and $11.83 per hour in 2020.  

Additionally, the plaintiffs claim that Pitts Farm Partnership began exclusively hiring white farm workers from South Africa, which is a country that is 80 percent Black. As the company added more South Africans farm workers, it hired fewer Black employees. Pitts Farm Partnership retained the six Black farmworkers, even having them train the South Africans while paying them less money. 

One of the six plaintiffs asked the company to pay more, but the company refused. Not long after that, the company stopped employing several of the plaintiffs.  Griffin and Simpson drove trucks for Pitt Farm Partnership, usually during the harvest season from April through November, transporting the farm produce.  The other four, Gregory and Richard Strong, who are brothers, and Johnson and Reed, worked in the agricultural side of the company, from February through November.  

Mississippi isn’t the only state to hire white South African farmers. This practice is also found in North Dakota and Montana. Photo credit: Element Envato

A long-time hiring practice

U.S. farms hiring white South African farm workers isn’t new.  U.S. farm companies have sought to employ South African farm workers to make up for the supposed lack of local temporary employees. U.S. farmers say there are millions of agriculture jobs for the taking, but they can’t find any U.S. farmworkers willing to take them.

According to a 2016 Great Falls Tribune article, farms in South Africa have been hiring fewer temporary farm workers. South African farmers blame labor laws passed by post-apartheid governments, which resulted in their inability to hire more farm workers. One of the reasons they say they could not recruit more workers is because of the increase in South Africa’s minimum wage. The hikes made it difficult for them to pay salaries, so they fired many of their workers to reduce costs. Most of the fired workers are Black.

Owners of large U.S. farms  like South Dakota alfalfa producer Mike Brosnan believe there are several advantages in using South African farm workers.  He told an agriculture publication that they are available for U.S. employment because South Africa’s planting and harvesting seasons are the opposite of those in the U.S.  South African farm workers are finished with their country’s planting and harvesting cycle when U.S. farms are just beginning their planting season.

Brosnan told the agriculture publication that he is impressed with the immigrants’ diligence and reliability.  “The South African workers we’ve brought over differ from some of the employees we’ve had in the past in that they are dependable,” said Brosnan. “They always show up on time and hardly complain about anything. They’re here to earn money, and they know how to hustle. There’s always an exception out there, but most of them have a very good work ethic.” Brosnan said the fact that the white South African farm workers speak English as a second language (their first language is Afrikaans) is a plus.

The resolution to the matter is not expected for some time.  The Black farm workers’ suit could take one year or more to be heard in a federal court. Meanwhile, Pitts Farm Partnership has not issued a statement about the suit.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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