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A farmworker is a person working in the agricultural production industry. They may work on farms of all sizes, from small, family-run businesses to large industrial agriculture operations. Depending on the location and type of farm, the work may be seasonal or permanent. Seasonal workers, often migrant workers, are low-wage workers, who are not working in their country of origin. Permanent workers may have a particular set of skills or educational backgrounds that allow them to earn higher wages, and are often found on farms where there is year-round production, such as on dairy or beef cattle farms.

Farm workers in the United States[edit]

See also: Bracero Program

United States farm structure[edit]

The development of a particular kind of agriculture is dependent on the characteristics of the farming region. The soil type, climate, slope, and distance to markets all help in shaping the type of agriculture that thrives in any particular region. For instance, the Midwestern United States has rich, fertile soil, and so it produces corn, soybeans, cattle, hogs, and dairy products and has become known as the Corn Belt of America.[1] In contrast, agriculture in California’s Mediterranean and moderate climate produces more than half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts, which require hand-harvesting and a large labor force.[2]

Over the last century the amount of farmland in production has remained relatively steady, but the number of operating farms has continually dropped, signifying a consolidation of farm enterprises.[1] Around the 1930s hard economic times hit the country with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era, forcing some farmers off the land.[3] From 1950 to 2001 the amount of U.S. farm land used for major commodity crop production has remained about the same while over half of the farms are gone.[4] As farm production has largely moved away from the family farms and towards an industrial agriculture model, there is an increased need for wage labor. A farm’s reliance on farmworkers greatly depends on the quantity and type of crop in production. Some crops require more labor than others, and in California many labor-intensive crops are produced such as dairy products, fruits, tree nuts and vegetables.[5] Although the domestic farm labor force has decreased in the last century, the proportion of hired workers has grown.[5] Increased competition among agricultural producers and consolidation have created a need for a large, inexpensive, temporary workforce that increasingly comes from abroad.

Demographics of farm workers in the United States[edit]

Mexican American worker circa 1939

Agricultural workers make up around one-third of all those working on U.S. farms. About half of these workers are Hispanic laborers and supervisors, while most managers are white. 82 percent of workers are male, and the median age is 35. 42 percent were not born in the United States, while 64 percent are considered American citizens. Around 50 percent of workers are not legally authorized to work in the United States, and only 19 percent hold greencards.[6]

Farmworker issues and abuses[edit]

Farm workers face many challenges globally and in the United States, and are among the most marginalized labor groups in the world. The increasing prevalence of multinational corporations and a consolidated agricultural supply chain puts downward pressure on producers and thus wages and working conditions for labor.[7] The International Labor Organization argues that the large scale restructuring of agriculture contributes to violations of the four fundamental worker rights: the right to join unions and bargain collectively, the elimination of forced labor, the ending of child labor, and the reduction of discriminatory hiring.[8] Farm workers are more vulnerable to these abuses because of the nature of precarious work.

Not all farms and agricultural systems exhibit the following abuses and may respect the dignity of farm labor. The Swanton Berry farm for example "was the first strawberry farm in the United States to sign a contract with the United Farm Workers of America/AFL-CIO. The farm workers' contract includes the highest pay scales in the industry, health care, vacation and holiday pay".[9] Nonetheless, there are many prevalent abuses within the agricultural labor industry.

Global trade agreements, like NAFTA, and the depression of crop prices across the developing world contribute to agricultural workers seeking employment outside of their home country. Undocumented workers are subject to horrible abuses because of their illegal status, which exclude them from basic worker protection laws.[10] Even immigrant farmworkers granted a H-2A visa are still exposed to exploitation and mistreatment on the part of employers.[11]

Sexual harassment[edit]

Apart from enduring these abuses like their male counterparts, female farmworkers usually have to face sexual harassment in their workplace.[12] The Southern Poverty Law Center completed many studies investigating how many women had be victims of sexual exploitation and violence.[13] In one of their studies completed in 1993 on Californian immigrant farmworkers, Maria Elena Tevino found that 90% of female farmworkers she interviewed agreed that sexual harassment is a major workplace problem. And in another study by them in 2008 where Southern Poverty Law Center employees interviewed 200 low-wage Latina women working in five southern states, over three-quarters of the women said that sexual harassment was a major workplace problem; which demonstrates that sexual harassment remains a very real threat to these women today. Immigrant farmworker women are also frequently coerced or forced to trade sex with their supervisors in order to retain their jobs or to acquire them, according to the study by Maria Elena Trevino. In fact, rape is such a common occurrence for these immigrant women that when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated Californian farmworkers, the women referred to the field where they worked as the "fil de calzon", or field of panties.[14] And even their male counterparts are guilty of inappropriate touching or lewd comments,[15] so women are subjected harassment from their immigrant co-workers as well. These women often ignore their sexual abuse because of the shame and embarrassment they feel, and because of the fear of deportation if they went to police or other authority figures.[12]

Their immigrant and gender statuses both contribute to the sexual abuse that is so prevalent for women in the agricultural industry. Women are so out numbered by male farmworkers (20:1) that they can be easily identified while working in the fields.[15] Because of their vulnerability and visibility to male supervisors and co-workers, many women now attempt to hide their bodies by covering their faces with bandanas and wearing over-sized clothing.[16] The Southern Poverty Law Center launched the Bandana Project[17] in 2008 in order to acknowledge the sexual abuses of immigrant women to inform citizens of the United States about these egregious acts occurring in their home. In April of that same year, residents from 40 cities across the country stood in solidarity with immigrant women to bring awareness to workplace sexual harassment, but also to provide a voice for all those women too afraid or ashamed to talk. Like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Human Rights Watch, there are many organizations and programs aware of the workplace harassment of female farmworkers and interested in raising awareness of this issue.[18][19][20]

Adverse working conditions[edit]

Farm labor is not only a physically demanding and often dangerous occupation, but the natural conditions that arise from it being an outdoor job create concerning circumstances. Prolonged sun exposure is a common concern, and a factor that is accompanied by severe health risks.[21] Heat can be one of the most arduous aspects of farm labor, and the reoccurring case of inadequate breaks contributes to this dilemma; heatstroke has been reported as "the leading cause of work-related death among farmworkers".[22][23]

Although pesticide safety training is required by the US Environmental Protection Agency and other national regulatory agencies, implementation has been limited, and unsafe exposure to pesticides is a hazard for agricultural workers.[21][24][25]

A low number or absence of breaks during the work day is a frequently cited violation of labor in the fields. Contractors will often pressure laborers to work faster than a reasonable pace and without breaks. This pressure can be verbal threats of firing the worker, deportation or even physical abuse.[26][27] The lack of breaks during the work day is a clear infringement of farmworkers’ human rights. The right to rest and leisure is stated in Article 23 and 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.[28]

Water and bathrooms are also break related issues. Farmworkers have reported lack of water at the job site, or that which was provided being dirty.[22] In a survey taken of North Carolina’s tobacco farmworkers, "61 of the 86 workers interviewed said there was water in the field, but several said they were only allowed to drink it at certain times. Seven workers told interviewers that the water provided was dirty, hot, or often ran out during the day. Three workers said water was only provided sometimes, and three said water was not provided and they had to bring their own,".[26] There have even been instances of farmworkers resorting to extreme measures to access water, such as drinking out of ponds containing pesticides.[29] Bathrooms are also frequently left out of the work space. Out of all the North Carolina tobacco farmworkers interviewed in Oxfam America’s study, only 1/3 reported having access to a bathroom.[26]

In addition to environmental hazards, difficult working conditions can arise directly from the employers or contractors. There are numerous cases of physical and verbal abuse. Contractors will often threaten to call immigration or fire workers to motivate them or work past their quota.[27] Beatings are frequently enacted by contractors or crew leaders to workers who may not be working fast enough or stop for a quick break.[30] Physical and verbal abuse are also ways to strike fear into the farmworker to prevent them from leaving.[31]

Migrant and seasonal farmworkers are primarily Hispanic of Mexican origin and generally accept employment in remote rural regions, causing their access to health and social services—especially preventive health care—to be severely limited. Thus, in addition to living far below the national poverty line, farmworkers must also endure the combined effects of low income and low resource availability, which ultimately result in poor health.[32]

Modern-day slavery[edit]

The topic of human trafficking is becoming more well known throughout the world. The media has played a role in bringing it into the light and academic literature on the subject is starting to increase.[33] There is often an attitude of "not in my backyard" when it comes to the topic of human trafficking, but it permeates the United States as well. Farmworkers are especially susceptible to human trafficking due to their often non-U.S. citizen or resident status, with a large majority being illegal or undocumented.[34] They can be detained through numerous measures. It can be through physical force, threatening of harm or deportation, taking passports or visas, or indebting the workers.[27]

Farmworkers are also at risk of human trafficking because their work sites are often geographically isolating areas. Language barriers can also be a means of isolation. Tobacco farmworkers in North Carolina mentioned language as a barrier for communicating problems or concerns. They are often put in a position of dependence on the contractors which gives the latter leverage to intimidate and control the workers.[35] The seasonal and migratory nature of most farm work also contributes to farm laborers vulnerability to human trafficking. The constant flow of labor makes it difficult to keep track of workers and detect human trafficking.

There have been many cases of human trafficking among farmworkers in the United States.[36][37] Instances of workers being locked up, physically and verbally abused, identification stolen, and other means of detainment have made their way into seven federal cases regarding Florida agriculture.[38] Florida is not the only state known for instances of modern-day slavery. Recently, the largest U.S. case of human trafficking occurred in farms in Washington state and Hawaii where over 200 Thai workers had their passports taken and were threatened with deportation if they complained about working conditions.[39] While malpractices such as these are widespread in the United States, efforts are being made to eradicate this issue.

Low pay and wage theft[edit]

This group represents one of the lowest resource work forces in terms of annual income and occupational benefits. With an average annual income of $11,000, farm work occupies the second lowest paid job in the country[40] Sometimes workers are paid less than the federal minimum wage[22][41] or their contractors will underreport their hours or even make unauthorized non-tax related deductions from their paycheck.[41]

Wage theft is another issue for farmworkers; the most common occurrences of wage theft are not compensated for the extra labor or through delayed payments.[citation needed] There have even been instances of discrimination related to wage theft, where H-2A workers and undocumented workers doing the same jobs were paid at different rates, the latter receiving the lower wages.[41]

Farm worker organizing in the United States[edit]

Main article: United Farmworkers

Compared to other workers, organization attempts on the behalf of farm-workers face a double challenge. First, labor laws that apply are not always enforced for agricultural workers.[42] The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, for example, which protects most workers who organize and form trade unions from employer retaliation (e.g., the firing of workers for trying to join a union) and sets up a framework for unions and employers to negotiate in good faith, does not extend to farm workers[9] Similarly, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which sets minimum wage and overtime pay requirements does not apply to farm labor. In 1966, the minimum wage requirement, but not the overtime pay, was extended to apply to farm workers who worked on farms where there was over approximately 7 full-time employees in a quarter.[9] Some states such as California, have passed laws guaranteeing the right to organize, but these apply only to the particular state in which the law was passed. A second important challenge faced by farm worker organizers is the vulnerability of the workers due to their immigration status. The non-immigrant status of guest workers as well as the lack of documentation of many other workers places them in a politically weak position to address worker injustices.[43] Despite these challenges, there has been an important history of farm worker organizing in the United-States, and farm labor organizing continues to this day both to ensure the enforcement of existing regulation and to create new regulations. Some of the causes that these organizations fight for include:

  • Free negotiation [44]
  • Recognizing workers' rights such as health, wages, and safety [45][46][47]
  • Fair treatment of undocumented workers [45][48]
  • Fair wages [49][50]
  • Fair trade of product [45][49][51]
  • Alliances with other organizations and student support [50][52]
  • Good relationship of farmer with buyer [45][49]
  • Protection of children [45]
  • Safe housing for workers [46][48]
  • Bias-free policing
  • Inclusion in the healthcare system[48]
  • Unionization, in some cases [53]
  • Education of the community about immigrant workers,[48]

Some of the main organizations associated with the farm workers movement are the United Farm Workers, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the Agricultural Justice Project[45] and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Many of the issues around which farm workers organize relating to occupational health and safety and labor rights, such as immigration rights and pesticide use on farms, are also socially important issues that affect overall society.[54]

The first approach of organization targets regulation changes by pressuring the government through worker solidarity movements. The UFW, for example, often runs campaigns targeting policy by encouraging citizens to communicate with their government representatives on a variety of issues. As a recent example, on the heels of the death of a young farm worker, the UFW has been encouraging supporters to contact California’s governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to improve the enforcement of existing regulations regarding working in the heat. Despite having the strictest heat laws in the country, heat deaths continue to occur and are largely attributed to a lack of workplace inspectors which results in a low level of compliance.[55]

[56] A second strategy involves targeting high-profile businesses that are supplied through contractors and subcontractors hiring farm workers. Recently, the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, for example, has applied pressure to several companies through consumer boycotts, including McDonalds and Taco Bell. The result of these campaigns were that these companies agreed to pay an extra penny per pound to the farmworkers who picked for them, regardless of the fact that they were employed through subcontractors.[57]

There are other specific groups that are influential in their organization attempts. For example, the Food Chain Workers Alliance is a coalition of agricultural production organizations founded in 2009 with the goal of creating a sustainable food system and advocating workers' rights while keeping the cost of food down. Campaigns include Dignity at Darden, Making Change at Walmart, and the Campaign for Fair Food. The program also fights for raising the tipped minimum wage, and the Fair Food Agreement with the Coalition of Imomokalee Workers.[58]

Another such group is the ‘’’Agricultural Justice Project’’’ (AJP). This project seeks to promote food justice by creating a food label that signifies the certification of fair treatment of the workers who helped produce the food as well as fair contracts and pricing for farmers, and sustainable and fair trade of the food at every step of production. Four nonprofit organizations are partners in the AJP: The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA), The Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), Florida Organic Growers (FOG), and the Northeastern Organic Farming Association (NOFA). Each group has a common goal of improving the quality of life for sustainable farmers.

The Fair World Project, launched by the Organic Consumers Association in 2010, is an organization which promotes fair trade practices as well as the labeling of certified products. It also works to educate consumers and the community about fair trade.


Many programs exist, such as World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) that facilitate the placement of volunteer farmworkers on specific types of farms. Additionally, farms may offer apprenticeship or internship opportunities where labor is traded for the knowledge and experience gained from a particular type of production.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b USDA Agricultural Fact Book ’98: Chapter 2,
  2. ^ A Look at California Agriculture.
  3. ^ Wessel’s Living History Farm, Farming in the 1930s
  4. ^ Philpott, Tom (9 October 2007). "Your Food Doesn’t Come From the Grocery Store: A journey into the heart of industrial agriculture". Grist Environmental News and Commentary. 
  5. ^ a b Kandel, William (April 2008). "Hired Farmworkers a Major Input for Some U.S. Farm Sectors". Amber Waves. 
  6. ^ "Number and Geographical Distribution of Hired Farmworkers". USDA Economic Research Service. Retrieved 16 May 2013. 
  7. ^ Guthman, Julie (2004). Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  8. ^ Rural Migration News. 2003. ILO: Global Farm Issues. October 2003; v9 no. 4.
  9. ^ a b c "Oxfam America". Oxfam America. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  10. ^ "US: Sexual Violence, Harassment of Immigrant Farmworkers". Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  11. ^ "Immigrant Justice". Southern Poverty Law Center. Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 5 April 2013. 
  12. ^ a b "US: Sexual Violence, Harassment of Immigrant Farmworkers". Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch. 
  13. ^ "Farmworker Sexual Violence Facts". Southern Poverty Law Center. Community Alliance for Global Justice. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  14. ^ "Immigrant Women". Southern Poverty Law Center. Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 6 April 2013. 
  15. ^ a b Xochitl Castaneda, Patricia Zavella (28 June 2003). "Changing Constructions of Sexuality and Risk: Migrant Mexican Women Farmworkers in California". Journal of Latin American Anthropology 8 (2): 126. doi:10.1525/jlca.2003.8.2.126. Retrieved 5 May 2013. 
  16. ^ "The Bandana Project: Raising Awareness about the Exploitation of Farmworker Women". California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Retrieved 6 May 2013. 
  17. ^ "'Bandana Project' to Spotlight Sexual Exploitation of Farmworker Women". Southern Poverty Law Center. Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 9 May 2013. 
  18. ^ "California Coalition Against Sexual Assault". California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  19. ^ "Immigration Women and Children Project" (PDF). City Bar Justice Center. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  20. ^ "The National Coalition for Immigrant Women". Word Press. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  21. ^ a b Arcury TA et al. Overcoming language and literacy barriers in safety and health training of agricultural workers J Agromedicine. 2010 Jul;15(3):236-48. PMID 20665309
  22. ^ a b c "A State of Fear" (PDF). 
  23. ^ Jackson LL et al. Preventing heat-related illness among agricultural workers. J Agromedicine. 2010 Jul;15(3):200-15. PMID 20665306
  24. ^ Knaak JB et al Pesticide regulations: exposure-dose modeling from FIFRA to FQPA. Prog Mol Biol Transl Sci. 2012;112:117-62. PMID 22974739
  25. ^ Ross JH et al Pesticide exposure monitoring databases in applied risk analysis. Rev Environ Contam Toxicol. 2006;186:107-32. PMID 16676903
  26. ^ a b c "A State of Fear" (PDF). Oxfam America. Retrieved 15 May 2013. 
  27. ^ a b c "A State of Fear" (PDF). Oxfam America. Retrieved 15 May 2013. 
  28. ^ "A State of Fear" (PDF). Oxfam America. Retrieved 15 May 2013. 
  29. ^ "Farm workers & Working Conditions". Farm worker Advocacy Network. Retrieved 16 May 2013. 
  30. ^ Philpott, Tom (28 March 2012). "Farm Workers Get Beat Up in Florida Fields and the US Senate". Retrieved 16 May 2013. 
  31. ^ Beverly Bell; Tory Field (6 May 2013). "We Have a Dream: Farmworkers Organize for Justice". Huffington Post. Retrieved 16 May 2013. 
  32. ^ Hernandez-Valero M.A., Herrera A.P., Zahm S.H., Jones L.A. "Community-Based Participatory Research and Gene-Environment Interaction Methodologies Addressing Environmental Justice among Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Woman and Children in Texas: "From Mother to Child Project". Californian Journal of Health Promotion, Vol. 5, 2007
  33. ^ Pati, Roza (2012). "Trading in Humans: A New Haven Perspective". Asian Pacific Law Review 20 (2). Retrieved 15 May 2013. 
  34. ^ Martin, Phillip. [( "Hired Farm Workers"] (PDF). Choices. Retrieved 15 May 2013. 
  35. ^ "A State of Fear" (PDF). Oxfam America. Retrieved 15 May 2013. 
  36. ^ Pat Gillespie; Amy Bennett Williams (18 January 2008). "Sixth Immokalee slavery case suspect arrested Group accused of keeping beating, stealing from Immokalee laborers". Fort Myers News Press. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  37. ^ Grimm, Fred (16 December 2007). "How about a side order of human rights?". The Miami Herald. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  38. ^ "CIW Anti-Slavery Campaign". Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  39. ^ THE ASSOCIATED PRESS (20 April 2011). "Farms Charged With Human Trafficking". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  40. ^ The United States Farmworker Factsheet. Student Action with Farmworkers.
  41. ^ a b c "A State of Fear" (PDF). 
  42. ^ "Mission and Programs". Migrant Justice. Retrieved 15 May 2013. 
  43. ^ Oxfam America. 2004. Like Machines in the Fields: Workers Without Rights in American Agriculture. Research Paper.
  44. ^ "Food First Mission Statement". Food First Institute for Food & Development Policy. Retrieved 21 April 2013. 
  45. ^ a b c d e f "The Agricultural Justice Project's Social Justice Standards". Agricultural Justice Project. Retrieved 21 April 2013. 
  46. ^ a b "About Us". National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Retrieved 16 May 2013. 
  47. ^ "Mission". Border Network for Human Rights. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  48. ^ a b c d "Mission and Programs". Migrant Justice. Retrieved 21 April 2013. 
  49. ^ a b c "Mission". Food Chain Workers Alliance. Retrieved 21 April 2013. 
  50. ^ a b "About Us". Student/Farmer Alliance. 
  51. ^ "About Us". Fair World Project. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  52. ^ "About Us". Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  53. ^ "About Us". Jobs with Justice. 
  54. ^ Henderson, Elizabeth. "Reviving Social Justice in Sustainable and Organic Agriculture". Fair World Project. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  55. ^ "History". Migrant Justice. Retrieved 21 April 2013. 
  56. ^ Khokha, Sasha. 2008. "Teen Farmworker's Heat Death Sparks Outcry" on NPR website. 6 June 2008.
  57. ^ Dell Joyce, Shawn. 2008. "Honoring the hands that feed us" on Idaho Mountain Express and Guide website. 19 November 2008
  58. ^ "Mission". Food Chain Workers Alliance. Retrieved 16 May 2013. 

External links[edit]