Labor Secretary Marty Walsh vowed a year ago to fight the racist wage and hiring practices alleged by Black farm workers regarding workplace abuse and exploitation in the Delta.
That promise resulted in a Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division investigation called Operation Delta Force, which released findings Wednesday into those allegations of wage theft and illegal displacement of local workers in favor of white workers from South Africa, a practice detailed by Mississippi Today.
Forty-four employers were found to have violated federal labor laws and were fined nearly $350,000 in civil penalties, according to the investigation. Additionally, about $505,000 in back wages has been recovered for 161 Delta workers.
The Black farm workers “were elated that finally their voices were heard, that finally they were getting the wages and they could go to work and see that they were valued as an employee,” said Audrey Hall, the division’s district director in Jackson.
Mississippi Today’s “Exploited” investigation found that at least five Delta farms paid their local workforce less than workers who came to Mississippi on foreign farm work permits called H-2A visas over the past few years.
Most of the farms recruited young, white South African workers, which farm owners said is in response to an aging local workforce population and a shortage of people to take those jobs.
The H-2A program mandates a premium hourly wage, which was $12.45 last year. Labor regulations order farms hiring the visa workers to offer jobs to local workers at that rate and not to pay current workers below it.
The workers’ experiences were detailed in a lawsuit against two Delta farms that was filed in 2021 and settled earlier this year.
The Wage and Hour Division took a look at the H-2A program and found employers violated requirements for multiple reasons, including when they showed preferential treatment, failed to pay the same rate of pay to local workers and failed to provide local workers bonus opportunities.
Juan Coria, the division’s Southeast regional administrator based in Atlanta, said the purpose of the H-2A program was to bring people if help was needed – not to replace local workers.
As a result of the investigation, some workers received raises that brought them up to the same rate that the H-2A workers are paid, Hall said, and more farms have come into compliance.
She said that extra money means a lot to Delta workers living in one of the poorest areas of the state. They no longer have to make choices between whether to buy groceries, medicine or pay for housing, Hall said.
The Wage and Hour Division plans to launch more investigations and increase outreach in the Delta.
Hall said the division’s role is to help vulnerable workers through education about issues such as contracts and wages. The division has a toll-free help line at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243.)
Coria said an immediate result of Operation Delta Force is that the division now has an investigator assigned to the Delta who is based in Greenwood.
One of his goals is for these efforts to improve working conditions for future Black farm workers in the Delta and inform farms about their responsibilities in following federal labor laws.
“This will have a positive impact,” Coria said.