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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
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. 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.
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. Around the 1930s hard economic times hit the country with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era, forcing some farmers off the land. 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. 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. Although the domestic farm labor force has decreased in the last century, the proportion of hired workers has grown. Increased competition among agricultural producers and consolidation have created a need for a large, inexpensive, temporary workforce that increasingly comes from abroad.
The US had 1.063 million hired agricultural workers in 2012, 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) 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. 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.
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 The 61 percent reduction in farmworker numbers between then and 2012 occurred despite an agricultural output increase of about 140 percent, serving a population that increased by 93 percent over that period. Whereas 74.7 percent of hired farmworkers were seasonal in 1954, 74 percent were year-around employees in 2012.
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.)  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, 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”.
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. 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. 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.
Working conditions and workplace issues
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.
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.”
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.
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. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Worker Safety Program provides educational materials facilitating implementation of the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard established under federal regulation. 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.
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.”
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.
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, whereas violent crime victimizations were 2.61 per hundred of the US population in 2012. In 1999-2000, roughly 0.14 percent of farmworkers 18 and older reported having been a victim of workplace violence within the past year, whereas the rate of workplace violence was 0.5 percent for all US employed persons over the age of 16 in 2005-2009. Sexual harassment and sexual exploitation of female farmworkers have been reported and are an important concern. 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.
There have been some cases of human slavery and human trafficking among farmworkers. 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.
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.
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.
Despite laws and regulations for protection of farmworkers, concerns persist regarding violations, and regarding the economic status and welfare of many 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. 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 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. 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. 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
- Recognizing workers' rights such as health, wages, and safety
- Fair treatment of undocumented workers
- Fair wages
- Fair trade of product
- Alliances with other organizations and student support
- Good relationship of farmer with buyer
- Protection of children
- Safe housing for workers
- Bias-free policing
- Inclusion in the healthcare system
- Unionization, in some cases 
- Education of the community about immigrant workers,
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 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.
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.
 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.
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.
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
In Canada in 2010, there were 297,683 agricultural employees; 112,059 were year-around and 185,624 were seasonal or temporary.
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. 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.
Workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, being citizens of Mexico and various Caribbean countries, 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. 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.” (British Columbia did not participate in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program until 2004.)
Many of the issues noted for farmworkers in the US also apply in Canada. 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.”
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.
Farm workers in Mexico
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.
Several issues, particularly low pay and harsh working conditions, have been identified that pertain to some farmworkers in Mexico. Many of these issues are pursued by farmworker organizations, with resulting labor action, e.g. strikes occurring in 2015.
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. 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. 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.
Farm workers in the European Union
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. 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.
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.
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