Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers: Protective Statutes


Publication Date: May 2006

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Agriculture, forestry and fishing



Workers in agriculture, generally, have experienced a different pattern of labormanagement relations and labor standards than those in the industrial workforce. In part, such disparity was related to the nature of the work and the workforce. Some agricultural workers have tended to be migratory or seasonal -- and they have tended to be employed, more or less casually, for short periods by any single employer who, perhaps not surprisingly, did not want to be burdened by a regular employer/employee relationship. Some agricultural workers are skilled; the majority are probably marginally skilled or unskilled -- though they perform necessary services.

Two pieces of legislation, sequentially, have dealt in a significant manner with migrant or seasonal agricultural labor. In 1964, Congress passed the Farm Labor Contractor Registration Act (FLCRA). For a decade, little attention was paid to the statute, but then, in 1974, it was amended and suddenly, a storm of protest was heard. It was argued that the wrong people were being forced to register. Through the next nine years, various interests sought modification of the act to conform to their perceptions of the original intent of the Congress. In 1983, Congress repealed the FLCRA and replaced it with the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers' Protection Act (MSPA). With a very few exceptions, MSPA has operated without controversy. But, at the same time, some may ask, has the new enactment been effective?

The two statutes -- FLCRA and MSPA -- are intimately connected and have triggered similar reactions with respect to immigration policy, to the inability of agricultural workers to organize and to bargain collectively, and to more general labor standards. Some have suggested that practices under FLCRA and of MSPA have been unduly burdensome. Has the concept of farm labor contractor been defined with sufficient care? Have agricultural interests made effective use of their employees, providing them with training and with consistency of employment? Might better utilization of employees prove more productive and more profitable? And, might these changes, in turn, prove more attractive to domestic American workers?

This report is a summary and a survey, spelling out the considerations that Congress found were necessary to face. It begins in the 1960s with the advent of FLCRA, and proceeds through the enactment of MSPA and to the end of the century. But, it is also a summary of developments in the history of the two statutes, written from the perspective of a labor economist. It may, from time to time, be revised as new developments occur.