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A farmworker is a hired agricultural worker on a farm. However, in discussions relating to labor law application, the term “farmworker” is sometimes used more narrowly, applying only to a hired worker involved in agricultural production, including harvesting, i.e. not to a worker in other on-farm jobs, such as packing.

Farm workers in the United States[edit]

See also: Bracero program

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] 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.


Mexican American worker circa 1939

The US had 1.063 million hired agricultural workers in 2012,[6] Hired workers currently account for about one-third of agricultural workers. The remainder of agricultural workers are farm owners and members of their families. Agricultural service workers (which include labor provided by labor contractors[6]) make up 27 percent of the hired workers. A household survey of US hired farmworkers found that 45 percent are Hispanic and 64 percent are US citizens. However, of US hired farmworkers doing crop-related work (excluding workers with H-2A visas), about 50 percent lack legal authorization to work. In 2012, of hired farmworkers other than agricultural service workers, 26 percent were employed in farm work for part of the year, rather than being year-around farm employees.[6] Also In 2012, of hired crop workers, about three-quarters were not “migrant”, i.e. they worked at a single location within 75 miles of home.[6]

Substantial demographic change among farmworkers has occurred since the mid-20th Century. In 1954, there were 2.73 million hired agricultural workers in the US[7] The 61 percent reduction in farmworker numbers between then and 2012 occurred despite an agricultural output increase of about 140 percent,[8] serving a population that increased by 93 percent over that period.[9] Whereas 74.7 percent of hired farmworkers were seasonal in 1954,[7] 74 percent were year-around employees in 2012.[6]


According to the US Department of Agriculture, the average wage rate for US [hired] agricultural field and livestock workers in 2014 was $11.29 per hour. This figure does not include the average value of perquisites, such as cash bonuses, housing or meals that are provided to some agricultural workers.) [10] The average exceeded the median.

For 2014, the median hourly wages of $9.17 for “Farmworkers and Laborers, Crop, Nursery, and Greenhouse” and $11.02 for “Farmworkers, Farm, Ranch, and Aquacultural Animals” can be compared with the median for all US occupations of $17.09,[11] and with the federally mandated minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. In 2014, of US private sector workers paid hourly wages, the fraction paid less than minimum wage was 1.3 percent of workers in “agriculture and related industries”, versus 2.5 percent of those in “nonagricultural industries”.[12]

In 2014, for US “Farmworkers and Laborers, Crop, Nursery and Greenhouse”, the median annual wage was $19,060. The 10th and 90th percentiles were $17,280 and $27,890, respectively.[13] For “Farmworkers, Farm, Ranch and Aquacultural Animals” the median annual wage was $22,930. The 10th and 90th percentiles were $17,080 and $37,360, respectively.[14] These figures can be compared with some of the poverty thresholds for 2014 published by the US Census Bureau: single person under 65: $12,316; two people (householder under 65): $15,835; same, but with one child under 18: $16,317.[15]

Working conditions and workplace issues[edit]

For most agricultural workers, much work is outdoors and may involve extremes of weather. Crop harvesting may require bending and crouching. Because machinery and animals can cause injury, workers must take precautions and be alert. Although crop workers may risk exposure to pesticides, exposure can be minimal if appropriate safety precautions are followed.[16]

Heat stress is a serious concern. Among US farmworkers involved with crops, the heat-related average death rate over a 15-year period was 0.39 per 100,000 workers. The Centers for Disease Control has recommended: “Agricultural employers should develop and implement heat stress management measures that include 1) training for field supervisors and employees to prevent, recognize, and treat heat illness, 2) implementing a heat acclimatization program, 3) encouraging proper hydration with proper amounts and types of fluids, 4) establishing work/rest schedules appropriate for the current heat indices, 5) ensuring access to shade or cooling areas, 6) monitoring the environment and workers during hot conditions, and 7) providing prompt medical attention to workers who show signs of heat illness.”[17]

Potential health and safety issues that may be associated with farm work also include vehicle rollovers, falls, musculoskeletal injuries, hazardous equipment, grain bins, pesticides, unsanitary conditions, and respiratory disease among others.[18][19]

In 1998-99, 468 individuals employed in agriculture were identified with acute occupational pesticide-related illness in six states participating in the SENSOR program (AZ, CA, FL, NY, OR, TX), which include states where large numbers of crop farmworkers are employed. This compared with 441 individuals employed in non-agricultural occupations who were identified with acute occupational pesticide-related illness in those states.[20] The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Worker Safety Program provides educational materials facilitating implementation of the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard established under federal regulation.[21][22] In 2009-2010, NAWS (the National Agricultural Workers Survey, conducted under the US Bureau of Labor Statistics) found that 84 percent of workers received training in safe use of pesticides within the past 12 months from their current employers.[23]

NAWS found that “Almost all farm workers reported that their current farm employer made drinking water, toilets and washing water available on a daily basis. Of the small percentage of farm workers who reported not using the employer-provided toilets on a daily basis (3% in 1999-2000), three-fourths indicated that the bathroom was 'too far away' to use.”[23]

The survey asked: If you are injured at work or get sick as a result of your work, does your employer provide health insurance or pay for your health care? In 2009-2010, 74 percent of survey farmworkers answered yes, 15 percent did not know. In 2007-2008, 60 percent of farmworkers considered it “easy” to get access to US health care.[23]

In 1999-2000, roughly 2 per hundred farmworkers 18 and older reported having been a victim of violence (e.g. pushed, slapped, hit, etc.) within the past year,[23] whereas violent crime victimizations were 2.61 per hundred of the US population in 2012.[24] In 1999-2000, roughly 0.14 percent of farmworkers 18 and older reported having been a victim of workplace violence within the past year,[23] whereas the rate of workplace violence was 0.5 percent for all US employed persons over the age of 16 in 2005-2009.[25] Sexual harassment and sexual exploitation of female farmworkers have been reported and are an important concern.[26] However, there is a dearth of statistics to indicate the extent of these abuses, and undocumented foreign workers may be especially reluctant to report them.[27]

There have been some cases of human slavery and human trafficking among farmworkers.[28][29] However, some Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims regarding human trafficking of farmworkers, the subject of widely publicized court cases, were dismissed or rejected by federal courts.[30][31]

Workers rights cards, in English and Spanish, are produced by the US Department of Labor. The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act establishes standards regarding wages, housing, transportation, disclosures and record-keeping. Among other provisions, the act prohibits retaliatory intimidation or discrimination against a migratory or seasonal worker who, with just cause, has filed a complaint or testifies or asserts a right relating to provisions of the Act. In order to operate legally, farm labor contractors must register with the Department of Labor.[32]

The H-2A program under US Citizenship and Immigration Services allows US employers or agents meeting various requirements to bring in foreign nationals for temporary or seasonal agricultural work. The petitioner must demonstrate that there are not sufficient qualified, able, willing and available US workers for the jobs. Employment of H-2A workers must not adversely affect wages of US workers doing similar jobs.[33]

Despite laws and regulations for protection of farmworkers, concerns persist regarding violations, and regarding the economic status and welfare of many farmworkers.[34]


Main article: United Farm Workers

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.[35] 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[36] 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.[36] 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.[36] 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[37]
  • Recognizing workers' rights such as health, wages, and safety[38][39][40]
  • Fair treatment of undocumented workers[38][41]
  • Fair wages[42][43]
  • Fair trade of product[38][42][44]
  • Alliances with other organizations and student support[43][45]
  • Good relationship of farmer with buyer[38][42]
  • Protection of children[38]
  • Safe housing for workers[39][41]
  • Bias-free policing
  • Inclusion in the healthcare system[41]
  • Unionization, in some cases [46]
  • Education of the community about immigrant workers,[41]

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[38] 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.[47]

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.[48]

[49] 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.[50]

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.[51]

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.

Farm workers in Canada[edit]

In Canada in 2010, there were 297,683 agricultural employees; 112,059 were year-around and 185,624 were seasonal or temporary.[52]

Qualifying employers in Canada can hire temporary foreign farmworkers from participating countries for periods of up to 8 months per calendar year for on-farm primary agriculture in specified commodity sectors, if the work involved totals at least 240 hours within a period of 6 weeks or less.[53] This Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, established in 1966, brings about 25,000 foreign workers to Canada each year. About 66 percent of those are employed in Ontario, 13 percent in Québec and 13 percent in British Columbia.[54]

Workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, being citizens of Mexico and various Caribbean countries,[53] tend to be Spanish-speaking. Between 1991 and 1996, in British Columbia, the number of South Asian agricultural workers increased from 3,685 to 5,685, mostly Punjabi-speaking.[55] Analysis published in 2000 indicated that “Of the 5,000 workers employed by the over 100 licensed Farm Labour Contractors in British Columbia, two-thirds were recent immigrants who entered Canada less than 3 years ago. Of the 700 harvest workers surveyed, 97 percent were Punjabi speaking.”[55] (British Columbia did not participate in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program until 2004.[56])

Many of the issues noted for farmworkers in the US also apply in Canada.[56] Analysis pertaining to Ontario noted that “All workers are eligible (with some variability) for provincial health insurance ... and workers compensation (WSIB), and are covered by provincial health and safety legislation through the Ministry of Labour, and yet [migrant farm workers] are not always able or willing to access these health and compensation services.”[57]

Every Canadian province and territory has an office that deals with labour and employment laws. A person at the local employment or labour standards office can talk to farmworkers about fair pay, hours of work, rest periods and working conditions, and provide other services. An employer cannot punish a farmworker for contacting an employment standards office.[58]

Farm workers in Mexico[edit]

The Encuesta Nacional de Empleo estimated 2.7 million agricultural workers in Mexico. About a million are migrants. There is much use of seasonal and migrant agricultural labor in northwestern Mexico, because of the considerable fruit and vegetable production occurring in that region. Rough estimates of peak seasonal labor requirements for Sinaloa, Sonora, and Baja California Norte and Sur are 400,000 to 600,000.[55]

Several issues, particularly low pay and harsh working conditions, have been identified that pertain to some farmworkers in Mexico.[59] Many of these issues are pursued by farmworker organizations, with resulting labor action, e.g. strikes occurring in 2015.[60][61]

Over the past quarter-century, water quality and pesticide issues affecting farmworkers in Mexico have been identified in peer-reviewed literature. The following examples are of interest, but are not necessarily broadly representative. In the Mezquital Valley of central Mexico, in the early 1990s, about 85,000 acres were irrigated with wastewater. A study of the implications found that important outcomes were diarrheal disease and parasitic infections in farmworkers and their families.[62] Pesticide issues were investigated in 200 farmworkers in a small area of northwestern Mexico in the 1990s. Of those workers, 59% could read at the third-grade level, few had received information about pesticides; 30% did not wear personal protective gear; and 20% had experienced acute pesticide poisoning at least once during the season investigated.[63] A study was conducted comparing 25 farm workers engaged in pesticide spraying with a control group of 21 workers not exposed to pesticides, from the Nextipac community in Jalisco, Mexico. The exposed group showed acute poisoning in 20 percent of the cases.[64]

Farm workers in the European Union[edit]

For the 27 member states of the European Union in 2009, 77 percent of the overall average agricultural labor force was family members; however, in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary and Estonia, family members were not predominant in the agricultural labor force. Hired labor accounted for more than half of total (hired plus family) labor in the horticulture sector. In the 27 states, the average wage of farm workers was €6.34.[65] In 2010, there were estimated to be about 25 million agricultural workers, including farm family members, in the EU-27 states; many were part-time workers. The full-time equivalents were estimated to be about 10 million.[66]


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. ^ a b c d e United States Department of Agriculture. Farm Labor.
  7. ^ a b United States Census of Agriculture 1954.
  8. ^ US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Agricultural productivity in the U.S.
  9. ^ United States Census Bureau. Population estimates.
  10. ^ United States Department of Agriculture. Farm Labor. (Released November 20, 2014).
  11. ^ US Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. May 2014 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates
  12. ^ US Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Characteristics of minimum wage workers, 2014.
  13. ^ US Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 45-2092 Farmworkers and Laborers, Crop, Nursery, and Greenhouse
  14. ^ US Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 45-2093 Farmworkers, Farm, Ranch, and Aquacultural Animals
  15. ^ United States Census Bureau. Poverty thresholds.
  16. ^ US Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Agricultural workers. Work environment.
  17. ^ Centers for Disease Control. Heat-related deaths among crop workers – United States 1992-2006. MMWR June 20, 2008 / 57(24);649-653.
  18. ^ Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Agricultural operations.
  19. ^ "CDC - NIOSH Publications and Products - Respiratory Disease in Agricultural Workers: Mortality and Morbidity Statistics (2007-106)". Retrieved 2016-05-10. 
  20. ^ Calvert, al. 2004. Acute occupational pesticide-related illness in the U.S. 1998-1999. Surveillance findings from the SENSOR-Pesticides Program. Am. J. Industrial Med. 45: 14-23.
  21. ^ US Environmental Protection Agency. Pesticides: health and safety. Protecting workers.
  22. ^ US Environmental Protection Agency. How To Comply With the Worker Protection Standard for Agricultural Pesticides: What Employers Need To Know.
  23. ^ a b c d e National Agricultural Workers Survey.
  24. ^ US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Criminal victimization 2013 (revised)
  25. ^ US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2011. Workplace violence, 1993-2009.
  26. ^ Tamayo, W. R. 2000. Forging our identity: transformative resistance in the areas of work, class and the law: The role of the EEOC in protecting the civil rights of farm workers. 33. U. C. Davis Law Review 1075
  27. ^ Oxfam America. Working in fear: sexual violence against women farmworkers.
  28. ^ Beardsley, S. Brothers receive 12-year prison terms in Immokalee human slavery case. Naples Daily News. Dec. 19, 2008.
  29. ^ Gillespie, P. (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.
  30. ^ Corr, C. Judge blisters EEOC for “frivolous” case against growers. Hawai’i Free Press. March 20. 2015.
  31. ^ Human trafficking charges dismissed. The Maui News. July 21, 2012.
  32. ^ US Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division. Fact Sheet #77C.
  33. ^ United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. H-2A temporary agricultural workers.
  34. ^ Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation and United Farmworkers. 2011. Inventory of farmworker issues and protections in the United States.
  35. ^ "Mission and Programs". Migrant Justice. Retrieved 15 May 2013. 
  36. ^ a b c Oxfam America. 2004. Like Machines in the Fields: Workers Without Rights in American Agriculture. Research Paper.
  37. ^ "Food First Mission Statement". Food First Institute for Food & Development Policy. Retrieved 21 April 2013. 
  38. ^ a b c d e f "The Agricultural Justice Project's Social Justice Standards". Agricultural Justice Project. Retrieved 21 April 2013. 
  39. ^ a b "About Us". National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Retrieved 16 May 2013. 
  40. ^ "Mission". Border Network for Human Rights. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  41. ^ a b c d "Mission and Programs". Migrant Justice. Retrieved 21 April 2013. 
  42. ^ a b c "Mission". Food Chain Workers Alliance. Retrieved 21 April 2013. 
  43. ^ a b "About Us". Student/Farmer Alliance. 
  44. ^ "About Us". Fair World Project. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  45. ^ "About Us". Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  46. ^ "About Us". Jobs with Justice. 
  47. ^ Henderson, Elizabeth. "Reviving Social Justice in Sustainable and Organic Agriculture". Fair World Project. Retrieved 17 May 2013. 
  48. ^ "History". Migrant Justice. Retrieved 21 April 2013. 
  49. ^ Khokha, Sasha. 2008. "Teen Farmworker's Heat Death Sparks Outcry" on NPR website. 6 June 2008.
  50. ^ Dell Joyce, Shawn. 2008. "Honoring the hands that feed us" on Idaho Mountain Express and Guide website. 19 November 2008
  51. ^ "Mission". Food Chain Workers Alliance. Retrieved 16 May 2013. 
  52. ^ Statistics Canada, Census of Agriculture, Table 004-0236 Paid agricultural work in the year prior to the census.
  53. ^ a b Employment and Social Development Canada. Hiring seasonal agricultural workers.
  54. ^ CBC News Canada. Migrant workers – who they are, where they’re coming from. (Feb. 7-8, 2012)
  55. ^ a b c Runsten, D. et al. 2000. The extent, pattern, and contributions of migrant labor in the NAFTA countries: an overview. A conference on agricultural migrant labor in North America. NAID Center, UCLA.
  56. ^ a b Otero, G. and K. Preibisch. Farmworker health and safety. Challenges for British Columbia.
  57. ^ McLaughlin, J. et al. The migrant farmworker health journey. Identifying issues and considering change across borders. International Migration Research Centre. Policy Points. Issue 6, April 2014.
  58. ^ Government of Canada, Immigration and Citizenship. Understand your rights – foreign workers.
  59. ^ Marosi, R. 2014. Hardship on Mexico's farms, a bounty for U.S. tables. Los Angeles Times, Dec. 7, 2014.
  60. ^ Thompson, N. A. 50,000 Mexican Farmworkers Have Gone on Strike in Baja California, Demand Overtime Pay, Breaks, Healthcare and Water . Latin Post.
  61. ^ Binkowski, B. North America’s fruit industry feeling effect of farm workers’ strike in Mexico. The Globe and Mail (Toronto), March 31, 2015.
  62. ^ Cifuentes, E. et al. 1993. Problemas de salud asociados al riego agricola con agua residual en Mexico. Salud Publica de Mexico [1993, 35(6):614-619]
  63. ^ de Jesús Chain-Castro, T. et al. 1998. Pesticide poisoning in Mexican seasonal farm workers. Int. J. Occupational Env. Health 4:202-203
  64. ^ Payán-Rentería, R. et al. 2012. Effect of chronic pesticide exposure in farm workers of a Mexico community. Arch. Env. Occupational Health 67: 22-30
  65. ^ European Commission, Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development. 2013. EU farm economics overview FADN 2009.
  66. ^ EU Agricultural Economics Briefs. How many people work in agriculture in the European Union? July 2013.

Further reading[edit]

  • Flores, Lori A. Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement (Yale University Press, 2016). xvi, 288 pp.

External links[edit]