In recognition of Farmworker Awareness Week (March 25th – 31st) and Cesar Chavez Day (March 31st), we invited Iris Figueroa, Director of Economic and Environmental Justice at Farmworker Justice, to guest author today’s blog post reminding us of some of the unique challenges of farmworker’s today. A workforce that truly embodies the definition of essential worker – farmworkers continue to be excluded from labor protections and immigration benefits and the threat of COVID-19 has made the occupation that more difficult and dangerous.
More than 2.4 million farmworkers labor in fields across the country to ensure the stability of our food supply. Despite their designation as essential workers, farmworkers continue to be subjected to discriminatory exclusions from basic labor rights. Additionally, due to the many barriers farmworkers face, those labor protections that do exist are often not enforced. This must change.
Agricultural work is a dangerous—and sometimes deadly—occupation. Violations of basic health and safety protections are all too common. But because many farmworkers are undocumented, they fear retaliation when speaking up about mistreatment or seeking help. And those who do complain often discover that our labor laws lack the basic but critical protections guaranteed to other workers. The people who risk their lives to put food on our tables deserve better.
Farmworkers continue to be excluded from many of the most fundamental wage and hour protections guaranteed to workers in almost every other sector of the American economy. These unequal labor laws are the result of compromises from the 1930s in which southern legislators agreed to only vote for vital labor protections if farmworkers and domestic workers, who were predominantly Black, were excluded from the law’s coverage. It is past time that Congress addresses this by striking the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) exclusion of farmworkers from overtime, remaining exemptions to the minimum wage, and exclusions from unionizing and collective bargaining rights.
At the same time, more than half of the country’s farmworkers are undocumented immigrants. Without legal status, these workers are unable to challenge dangerous and unfair working conditions without fear of retaliation and deportation; conditions for all workers suffer as a consequence. Legislation creating a pathway to immigration status and citizenship for farmworkers and their families is urgently needed to ensure a more just, stable, and secure agricultural system.
Additionally, a growing number of the nation’s farmworkers are guestworkers on H-2A temporary agricultural visas. The H-2A program allows growers to apply for guestworker visas, so long as they are able to show (1) that there are not enough available, willing and qualified U.S. workers, and (2) that the recruitment of guestworkers will not adversely affect wage and work conditions in the U.S. The number of visas approved each year has exploded, with more than 275,000 visas granted in FY 2020. These H-2A visa holders are denied a true immigration status and often arrive indebted due to the costs of obtaining the job. For these and other reasons, H-2A guestworkers are vulnerable and often experience abuse and exploitation.
Farmworkers have also been hit especially hard by the COVID pandemic. Because many farmworkers survive on very low wages, they often experience overcrowding in housing and transportation, increasing their exposure to the virus. Conditions are rarely better on the job, where many report that their employers fail to provide them with adequate information, masks, handwashing facilities, or other protective gear. And because of the migratory nature of the work, farmworkers rarely have consistent or reliable access to health care, including vaccines.
Yet even before the COVID pandemic, agricultural work was one of the most dangerous occupations in the country, despite the fact that many of the injuries, illnesses, and deaths suffered by farmworkers are preventable. The frequent use of pesticides and the resulting toxic drift across rural communities endangers the health of farmworkers and their families. Climate change also has a disparate impact on this community due to the dangerous temperatures that increase the already high risk of heat stress.
Lack of immigration status, exclusions from basic labor rights, economic insecurity and occupational health and safety risks are all factors that affect the daily lives of farmworkers and their families. This reality is the result of decades of unequal policies that continue to this day. It is long past the time for this shameful legacy to be addressed.
For more information on these issues and how you can support farmworkers, please visit www.farmworkerjustice.org
You can also access a state-by-state summary of farmworker rights, including links to farmworker legal services organizations, here.