Friends of Farmworkers is a statewide legal service program that provides legal representation to low- income workers employed in farming and food processing industries. While the services can be provided to anyone who qualifies based on income, executive director Meredith Rapkin said that many clients they see are Hispanic immigrants as well as Puerto Ricans and other groups of Hispanics living in Pennsylvania. Friends of Farmworkers has also been working with refugee populations and groups of Haitians and Jamaicans coming to Pennsylvania.
“I think we just see a lot of failure to pay people properly,” Rapkin said, “Maybe that’s just a result of the economy and employers are trying to cut corners wherever they can.”
Rapkin just began working with Friends of Farmworkers in September. Previously she worked as an immigration attorney and she said that while she is no longer helping immigrants gain citizenship, she is still working with matters concerning immigration.
“There have been labor trafficking issues that directly relate to immigration issues,” she said. It is not unusual for people under certain visa programs to encounter issues involving labor trafficking.
“It’s a new area for us, but it seems like an area where there is a lot of need out there, at least an unmet need,” Rapkin said.
In the H-2B Visa particularly, workers are tied to their employers in a way that if their employers treat them badly and they complain about the work, they can be fired. For immigrants on a work visa, firing them is akin to deporting them.
“For many workers, it’s income that’s the primary goal,” Rapkin said, “There may be all kinds of problems with the employment, but [workers] are unlikely to complain because of their economic situation.” Many immigrants work in the United States for only part of the year to support their families.
Liz Maria Chacko, an attorney at Friends of Farmworkers, said that an issue that Friends of Farmworkers sees frequently is workers being fired for making complaints.
Friends of Farmworkers also handles other cases involving employment issues and also have training and community education services. A lot of their work is focused in the Gettysburg and Reading areas.
“It’s great for people to understand what our services are, especially if they are outside of Philadelphia,” Rapkin said. “Even if we can’t represent them we’ll certainly provide referrals or information on referrals.”
The Philadelphia office for Friends of Farmworkers is located in Center City, at 42 S. 15th St., Suite 605. The telephone numbers are 215-733-0878 or 800-729-1607. The web site can be seen at https://www.friendsfw.org/