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Labour Last Updated: Nov 28, 2021 - 11:06:47 AM

The black American cotton labourers losing their jobs to white South Africans in the Mississippi Delta
Nov 28, 2021 - 11:05:17 AM

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Locals who have worked on the region’s farms for generations are suing after being replaced by immigrants
he first sign that Richard Strong had lost his job was when his farm-owned pickup truck disappeared from outside his farm-owned house.

A text informed him that his employers had cut a key and reclaimed the vehicle. Then a second message arrived, ordering him to move out of the house.

The wooden shack where he lived with his wife and four children was a relic. Rats ran under the floorboards, there were no window screens to keep out the mosquitos and birds flew into the attic. But there are similar wooden structures in various states of disrepair all over the vast expanses of the Mississippi Delta, one of America’s most fertile and poorest regions. It was still home.Strong had years of experience in farming cotton —
        knowledge he had shared with the man who ended up replacing him

Strong had years of experience in farming cotton — knowledge he had shared with the man who ended up replacing him

“They said that somebody else was interested in the house and they were going to need the house,” said Strong, 50, a black American who had spent 19 years ploughing, sowing and harvesting the fields at Pitts Farms Partnership in Sunflower County, which has been owned by the same white family for generations and had employed his father and grandfather before him. “There was no explanation or nothing. Everything changed and now I don’t have the job.

“Normally they would call me when it is time to go back in the fields, about March, depending on the weather. They just didn’t call.”

He realised that he had trained his own replacement. For several years he had shared all he knew about cotton and soybeans with a man who came to Mississippi about seven years ago in the vanguard of the most seismic change in the delta for decades.

“One of the guys said we got some Africans coming this year. I’m like OK,” Strong said, recalling the moment when the influx began. “Then when I seen them they weren’t black.”

The new arrivals were white South Africans and they are so numerous that the country has become the second largest overseas source of seasonal farm labour in America after Mexico.

In the Mississippi Delta, where cotton growing was established under slavery in the early 19th century and where unofficial racial segregation still persists, their ethnicity carries an extra charge.

The area covers 7,000 square miles of flood plain east of the Mississippi river and the population is about 70 per cent black. Unemployment is at more than 10 per cent — more than double the national average — while life expectancy and educational attainment are among the lowest in America. Black residents have historically struggled to buy and retain property. They own only 6 per cent of the agricultural land, producing just 1 per cent of the net farm income.

Seasonal work is a way of life and the ties between labourers and the land go back generations. Or rather, they did.Six
          former employees of Pitts Farms are seeking damages

Six former employees of Pitts Farms are seeking damages

At first there was room for everyone who wanted to work in the delta’s fields but then black Americans began losing their jobs to the South Africans. “It started to spread like cancer, this farm then the next farm,” said Strong. “As more of them came there was less of us.”

Now a group of displaced black workers have filed a legal case against white farm owners for lost income, stolen livelihoods and racial discrimination. They are waiting for a federal court to set a date for a preliminary hearing.

For the white South African farmers new opportunities in the American Deep South have provided a welcome refuge from the greater adversity they have faced under majority black rule following the end of apartheid. White farmers still own 72 per cent of agricultural land in South Africa despite whites making up 8 per cent of the population but many feel besieged, citing high levels of rural crime and the recent announcement that new land reform laws will allow the expropriation of land without compensation.

Danie Liebenberg set up Farm Recruit USA after he worked a season in Mississippi in 2016 and realised there was demand in the area for South African labour. Liebenberg estimates that 5,500 South Africans completed the season in US agricultural areas this year. A season runs from February or March to October or November and the South Africans come in on a temporary H-2A visa. The jobs are supposed to be offered first to American workers on at least the same terms.

“The Americans want farm workers who are skilled and hardworking,” said Liebenberg. “They tell me that they battle to get local young blood into farming. They like the fact that South Africans can speak English and are prepared to work hard for $12 [£9] an hour, which goes a long way in South Africa.”

When Richard Strong walked into the Mississippi Centre for Justice in Indianola to seek help, Ty Pinkins, a lawyer and community organiser, realised that not only had Strong lost his job but that on the minimum wage of $7.50 an hour he was paid significantly less than the South Africans. Under the visa rules they were on a minimum of $11.83 an hour last year.

The visa rules state that employers “show that employing H-2A workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed US workers” and that they “demonstrate that there are not enough US workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work”.

“It is really personal to me because I grew up in this area,” said Pinkins, 47, who was raised in a wooden shack on a delta plantation where his father drove a tractor.Ty
          Pinkins, a lawyer who is supporting the former employees, said
          the case was “really personal”

Ty Pinkins, a lawyer who is supporting the former employees, said the case was “really personal”

He was 13 when he first chopped cotton — the backbreaking manual labour of removing weeds by hand up and down the long rows, now a thing of the past thanks to chemical treatments.

After a 21-year career in the military — including three tours of Iraq and a stint as a communications assistant in the Obama White House — Pinkins graduated from Georgetown Law and returned to the delta to help the sort of disadvantaged people who were his neighbours growing up.

Six former employees of Pitts Farms, including Strong, are bringing the case for compensation and damages, while two more may join. The case also demands redress under the Civil Rights Act, stating that the farm “intentionally sought out white workers to fill its labour force and paid them at higher rates than its long-time black US workers” and “intentionally discriminated on the basis of race”.

It adds that a white supervisor “frequently used racial slurs, including the n-word”, that the farm “denied raises to its black workers that would have made them equal to [the] white workers” and that it “largely reduced its black workforce, including plaintiffs, in favour of more white workers from South Africa”.

Kobus Campher, a South African, claimed that American farmers preferred immigrant workers because they worked harder — a claim rejected by locals

The legal complaint also points out that “since 2014 [Pitts Farms] has used the H-2A programme to hire only white South Africans — no black South Africans — although that country is majority black by a wide margin”.

Neither Pitts Farms nor a lawyer acting for them replied to phone or email requests for comment.

One South African who worked in Mississippi for two seasons claimed that some white American farmers preferred the “attitude” of white South Africans to local black workers. Kobus Campher, 52, grew up on a 1,976-acre farm in George, Western Cape, that he and his brother recently inherited from their father. He earned $11.80 an hour in the Mississippi Delta and had free accommodation.

“The American farmers told us they like the South Africans, especially guys my age, not so much the younger ones because they like to drink and have a bit of a party, but we are just there to earn the money so don’t mind doing lots of hours,” he said.Campher, right, has worked in Mississippi for two

Recalling an incident where two black American workers refused his request to sweep the floor of a dusty workshop, Campher said: “If we finish something we are looking for something else to do. Those guys don’t have initiative. That’s why the American farmers like us. He employs those black local guys but they are not fond of them.”

Pinkins rejected this characterisation. “Unfortunately this feeds into the baseless, negative, racial stereotype that blacks are lazy. In fact, farm owners in the delta have, for centuries, mainly depended on black workers to plant, cultivate, and harvest crops such as cotton, soybeans and corn. As a result, much of the wealth associated with farming in the delta is due in large part to the literal blood, sweat, and tears of black farm labour that can be traced back generations.”

Publicity surrounding the case has brought inquiries to the non-profit legal organisation from other displaced black workers in agriculture and catfish farming, another staple of the region.

“A lot of the local black community members and their families have been working in farming for generations and it is almost an insult to say to someone that I know you know this land, you know this equipment, you know these seasons, you literally know this dirt because your family has been here forever but we are going to bring in people who do not know this geography and pay them more for the same work,” Pinkins said.

“John Lewis [the civil rights campaigner who died last year] said that there’s such a thing as good trouble and if that’s what it takes to make sure that people are treated fairly with dignity and respect, then label me a troublemaker.”

Strong, who first chopped cotton aged ten, said that he simply hopes for justice. “It bothers you when you haven’t got any work. This is what you love doing, what you were raised doing. This is who you are.”

Source:Ocnus.net 2021

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