Just as Mississippi was beginning to emerge from the national shame and scorn for the horrendous breakdown of its prison system and the most massive white-collar welfare fraud in the state’s history, then comes the really crazy scheme that left the nation again wondering what’s going on down there?
The Nov. 12, 2021 headline from the national Black news service The Grio said it all: Black farmworkers in Mississippi say they’re losing jobs to white South Africans.
The New York Times had given worldwide credence to the scandalous story in its own report of the same date.
“Black families with deep connections to the Delta have historically been the ones to perform fieldwork,” the Times reported. “That began to change about a decade ago, when the first of dozens of young, white workers flew in from South Africa on special guest worker visas.”
The Black workers trained the white South Africans, who were paid more than $11 an hour, while the Black men’s wages were kept at the $7.25 per hour minimum.
“Growers brought in more South Africans with each passing year, and they are now employed at more than 100 farms across the Delta,” the Times said. Meanwhile, the owners told the experienced Black workers, “their services were no longer needed,” the newspaper reported.
The agricultural guest worker program known as H-2A allows such imports of labor – when there is no local labor available for the work required, the Department of Agriculture says. For some reason, those numbers nearly quadrupled between the two census years 2010 and 2020. The H-2A visas went up to 213,394 in 2020 versus the 55,384 in 2011.
QUEST FOR JUSTICE
Out of this cloud of dirt and acrimony came the career Army Warrant Officer III Ty Pinkins, now an attorney on the staff of the Mississippi Center for Justice.
Pinkins is a native of Rolling Fork who is well familiar with the hard scrabble lifestyle Black families faced in order to survive in the Mississippi Delta. He is one of the lawyers representing the eight plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the biggest offender, Pitts Farms of Indianola.
“I think it’s a shame in Mississippi that we have Mississippi workers that are being paid less than foreign workers for the same work,” Pinkins said in a July 22 interview, two days after giving testimony before Congress on the farm situation. “Mississippi workers are literally having to train the foreign workers. And our senators are not up in arms about this. They are basically silent on the issue.
“What happens when local workers ask for a raise?” he asks. “Everyone wants to be paid fairly for an honest day’s work. Well, when local workers ask to be paid equal to their South African counterparts, one of three things happen: they are either ignored, flat out told ‘no’, or threatened with being fired.”
South African workers brought in under the H-2A program arrive without an adequate understanding of the different seasons, equipment, and crops, he said. To solve this problem, the farm owners “begin by forcing local Black workers to train and mentor foreign H-2A workers on how to operate the equipment, understand the seasons, and plant and harvest crops.”
Farm owners make three specific promises to the federal government when applying for the H-2A program, Pinkins points out.
First, no H-2A should be admitted to the U.S. unless no qualified U.S. worker is available. Second, farm owners promise to contact former U.S. workers from the previous farming season and invite them to return to the job. And third, the farm owners promise to put forth at least the same degree of effort to recruit U.S. workers to fill those positions as they do to hire foreign H-2A workers.
Even public assistance or federal welfare money designated for the most needy rarely makes it beyond the pockets and greed of the bureaucrats in charge. Over $130 million in TANF funds was lost to embezzlement committed by white-collar criminals working in top state government positions between 2018-2020, widespread recent news reports have said.
“It’s interesting that when you take a look at TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) resources that are supposed to go to low-income community members,” Pinkins says, “and if you take a look at the disparity in pay between the white South African H-2A workers and Black American workers in the Mississippi Delta, when you really dig down into it, the common denominator is racism.
“A lot of those TANF funds would benefit people in low-income communities, especially Black people in the Second Congressional District along the eastern border of the Mississippi River and the Delta.”
Pinkins says he is unable to pinpoint a specific event or ideology that has locked the state into its consistent pattern of white supremacist behavior and the disparagement of Black working-class people throughout most its history.
“I don’t know if there is a single causative event that has spurred the current disdain for Black Mississippians – especially those in low-income communities,” he said. “However, a culmination of events spanning centuries has created this idea in the mind of some employers that Black people don’t deserve to be treated fairly and paid equally to their white counterparts.
“There seems to be this deep-rooted idea that not only do Blacks not deserve to be treated equally but treating them equally and ensuring they have access to the necessary tools and resources to better their station in life is some kind of threat to non-Blacks – which is absolutely false. And this seems to be particularly the case with regard to the way Black farmworkers in the Delta have been systematically cheated out of their wages.”
Pinkins says he hopes that his testimony before the House Labor Subcommittee will motivate the Mississippi delegation in Washington to take action that will benefit the experienced farm workers of the Delta and elsewhere.
“My hope is that the hearing testimony will get the attention of our elected officials, particularly the two senators, Cindy Hyde-Smith and Roger Wicker,” he said. “I doubt it, but my goal in the testimony is to put some pressure on our elected officials to shine a light on this issue.”
Pinkins was designated “Hero of the Week” by the Vicksburg Post in its March 25, 2022 edition, saying, “Pinkins fought for his country, now fighting for justice.” The father of two, he has an office and residence in Vicksburg.
In his autobiography, 23 Miles & Running: My American Journey From Chopping Cotton in the Mississippi Delta to Sleeping in the White House, Pinkins says that although his military and professional journey has taken him around the world several times and led to an advisory position in the White House, he has never forgotten that his life’s journey began in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta.