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The National Center for Farmworker Health estimates that there are about 3 million farmworkers in the United States. More than a million work in California alone. Farmworkers face many on-the-job risks, both environmental and social. Constant exposure to pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers can result in birth defects, asthma, and cancer. Farmworkers are frequently victims of wage theft and many live in constant fear of immigration raids and deportation.

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Farmworkers are especially vulnerable due to the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding their working conditions. As consolidated, large-scale corporate growers have dominated farming, the management of farm labor is increasingly outsourced to contractors. These contractors act as intermediaries between farmworkers and growers, and provide loopholes for large-scale growers to avoid providing basic employee protections. Contractors are rarely inspected, despite their large role in the labor market; in California, for example, contractors supply anywhere between 50 and 75% of farmworker labor in that state. Nationally, labor contractors hire about 20% of farmworkers in the US.

According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, about 80% of farmworkers are men and 20% are women. About 40% are migrant workers who travel seasonally for farm jobs and live in temporary housing for the duration of their employment. Most farmworkers are born abroad, though around 30% of women and 20% of men are US-born citizens. Around 50% of farmworkers are undocumented. According to data collected by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, more than 50% of agricultural workers earn a sub-minimum—below poverty—wage.

Farmworkers are excluded from many key aspects of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a worker protection law that was passed in 1938. Agricultural workers initially weren’t included in any of the protections provided by the FLSA. In 1966, an amendment to the Act included farmworkers in minimum wage and child labor provisions, but today, farmworkers are still excluded from overtime provisions and hour guarantees. And their working conditions are frequently well below the legally guaranteed standards that many workers rely on.  

The landscape of farmworker demographics was radically different a century ago. In 1910, most farmworkers in America were native born, and worked on farms that were owned or rented by a family member. There were about 3.5 million hired farm laborers in the U.S at the beginning of the 20th century, most of whom were African-American. The number of hired laborers began to decline in the 1930s and that decline continued as workers were directed to war efforts throughout World War II. Between the 1940s and 1970s, nearly 5 million Southern African-Americans migrated northward to escape the segregation and racism of the Jim Crow South and to seek economic opportunity. This period, later dubbed the Great Migration, greatly changed the nature of farm labor in the United States.

One consequence of this shift was that, in order to bridge the labor gap, the American and Mexican governments collaborated to create the Mexican Farm Labor Program, often called the “bracero” program after the Spanish word for laborer. This program brought about 4.5 million Mexican workers to do temporary agricultural work in the US between 1942 and 1964, when the program ended. In 1956, there were 445,197 bracero workers in the United States, the largest number of any year of the program. By the late 1970s, Mexican workers on temporary visas comprised the majority of farm labor.

Farmworkers have frequently launched their own campaigns for better pay, living conditions, health care, and hours. But farmworkers are limited in their abilities to organize because of their exclusion from the National Labor Relations Act. Farmworkers who do attempt to organize can face extreme consequences, such as withheld wages, violence, or deportation. As a result, only about 1% of farmworkers interviewed by the United Farm Workers in 2011 were unionized.

Despite the risks, farmworkers have successfully won campaigns across the country. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the United Farm Workers, under the direction of Cesar Chavez, used boycotts and strikes to help end the bracero program, draw attention to abusive work conditions, and attain higher wages.

Today, farmworker organizing is happening across the country. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a group that represents tomato pickers in and around Immokalee, Florida, has achieved particular success. The CIW works with restaurant chains, supermarkets, and distributors to raise the wages of tomato pickers and bring awareness to the plight of farmworkers. The group has signed 11 multi-billion-dollar food retailers onto their Campaign for Fair Food. And the CIW has helped to prosecute employers in nine cases of modern-day wage slavery, liberating 1,200 farmworkers from enslavement in Florida.

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