Agricultural Exceptionalism in U.S. Policies and Policy Debates: A Mixed Methods Analysis

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Johns Hopkins University
Despite difficult working conditions, agricultural workers in the United States are excluded from many federal-level labor protections. These policy carve-outs, known as agricultural exceptionalism, have created a labor force in agriculture with fewer rights, protections, and benefits than workers in most other industries. Agricultural exceptionalism was originally born from successful efforts of employers to maintain a system of labor exploitation established in times of slavery and sharecropping. Agricultural workers continue to be from the most vulnerable social and economic groups. Agricultural exceptionalism in immigration policies has been critical in giving employers access to workers who are willing to do these jobs. Though agricultural exceptionalism has been studied at the federal level, little is known about this phenomenon in terms of state labor standards or the extent to which interest groups advocate for immigration policies that would perpetuate agricultural exceptionalism. This dissertation uses mixed methodologies to fill these important research gaps. The first paper is a comprehensive 50-state legal and regulatory mapping of minimum wage, overtime, and rest and meal period standards as they apply to farmworkers. The second and third papers are qualitative thematic analyses of political discourse about immigration reform as it pertains to agriculture from 2009-2014. The second paper explores how agricultural worker and employer interest groups construct competing problem narratives within political discourse on immigration reform. The third paper analyzes the policy positions of worker and employer interest groups in terms of whether those positions would perpetuate agricultural exceptionalism. The findings of this dissertation reveal that agricultural exceptionalism is widespread in state-level labor protections that impact wages and working conditions. Results additionally show that agricultural employers continue to advocate for special provisions in immigration policies that would facilitate access to a labor pool of non-citizens who are more likely to accept the status quo conditions of agricultural work. Worker interest groups advocate for policies that would equalize the rights of agricultural workers with those of most U.S. workers and increase capacity to mobilize their interests. The findings in this dissertation are useful for policymakers and advocates who would like to improve policy protections for U.S. agricultural workers.
agricultural exceptionalism, public policy