The Fight for Farmworker Justice
Farm work is some of the most dangerous work in the world. Farmworkers often are required to handle dangerous chemicals and perform difficult and repetitive physical labor. Workdays may be long and, especially on large farms, workers may work far from shade, sanitation facilities, and potable water sources for all or part of the day.
A few facts highlight the dangerous nature of farm work:
- Annually, as many as 20,000 farmworkers in the United States are victims of acute pesticide poisoning (i.e. direct exposure leading to immediate symptoms such as headache, vomiting, or rash); in addition, there is scientific evidence that pesticide exposure leads to higher rates of birth defects, developmental delays, leukemia, and brain cancer among farmworker children.1
- Globally, it is estimated that at least 1 million people are victims of pesticide2 poisoning annually, with 300,000 people dying from exposure to pesticides each year.
- Farmworkers in the United States are excluded from many labor laws that protect other workers; specifically [in many states] farmworkers are denied their universally recognized right to organize unions and collectively bargain with their employers, farmworkers generally are not entitled to overtime pay after working 40 hours in one week, and seasonal and migrant workers in some states are not granted workers compensation in the case of injury or death.3
- The International Labour Organization (ILO) has identified farm work as one of the three most dangerous jobs globally, with millions of workers injured each year and at least 170,000 deaths attributable to the job-related accidents.4
- Female farmworkers face additional hardship in the form of sexual harassment and rape on the field; one Human Rights Watch report found that nearly all women interviewed had experienced sexual violence or harassment personally or knew of another female worker who had.5
- Farmworker housing in the United States is often characterized by insect and rodent infestations, mold, overcrowding, and excessive noise, leading to health issues such as anxiety, depression, respiratory disease, and infections.6
There is no financial reward for enduring these conditions. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognizes farmworkers as some of the most economically disadvantaged workers in the country, with average pay for some categories of agricultural workers less than $10/hour or about $20,000/year assuming the best case scenario of year-round employment.7 Around the world, over one billion workers are employed in agriculture and in some countries as many as 60% of those workers live in poverty.8
In summary, farmworkers globally face a reality of harsh and dangerous working conditions that may lead to injury, illness, trauma from harassment, or even death. Farmworker wages do not provide basic needs for farmworker families, and often fall short of even the legally required minimum wage.
It is worth remembering that everyone who buys food depends on farmworkers. The tragedy of exploitation in the fields not only denies millions worldwide their fundamental human rights, it is a vulnerability to the sustainability of our food system.