It’s Been a Big Year for the Labor Movement. What About Farmworkers?
With major strikes in entertainment, logistics and more, 2023 has been a year of high visibility for the labor movement. Even in industries that have long combatted workers’ attempts to organize, like food service, workers have seen ongoing progress towards unionization and scored big political wins, like the creation of California’s fast food labor council. But for some of the most essential workers in the country — farmworkers — it’s been a year of stalled hopes and ongoing isolation from the labor gains made in other sectors of the economy.
With Congress working on another farm bill, farmworker-led organizations hope to capitalize on the omnibus food and agriculture legislation as an opportunity to enshrine some key protections in federal law. This would be a first — labor provisions have never been included in the farm bill’s 90-year history — but it is also something of a long shot. As congressional Republicans push for austerity measures across most of the bill’s sections (or “titles”), securing progressive provisions seems unlikely, even as, between extreme weather and a dysfunctional immigration system, conditions for farmworkers are only getting worse.
Stalled Hopes for the Farm Bill
The farm bill, a broad package of food and agriculture legislation that is renewed every five years and touches on nearly every aspect of the food system, has been the central focus this year in food policy circles. With titles covering conservation programs, subsidies, crop insurance, nutrition assistance programs and more, the overarching bill is the most impactful way that the government shapes the food system. But critics of U.S. agriculture policy have pointed out, the bill prioritizes profits for landowners and food companies at the expense of workers and consumers, which explains why the farm bill has historically neglected labor issues. That exclusion compounds the longstanding problem of agricultural exceptionalism — the separation of farmworkers from the wider labor movement and labor protections — ultimately leaving farmworker rights in jurisdictional limbo between the Department of Labor and the Department of Agriculture.
Farmworkers and advocates see getting labor-related provisions into the farm bill as an opportunity to change that.
But the 2023 farm bill negotiations have been anything but smooth: As September’s expiration approaches, it’s increasingly likely that Congress will need to pass a brief extension before it agrees on a new bill. That’s because some of the bill’s most significant pieces are at stake: Congressional Republicans have aggressively moved to block the expansion of climate-smart agriculture initiatives, cut nutrition assistance programs like SNAP and WIC and even decouple nutrition programs from the farm bill entirely.
This has hardly been an ideal environment for including new provisions in the bill, but activists have been fighting anyway — approaching members of Congress with appeals to more effectively address labor concerns. In a recent briefing for congressional staffers, farmworker groups and allies reiterated the demands laid out in a June letter sent to members of Congress and cosigned by more than 100 organizations. Proposals generally focus on expanding existing provisions — safeguarding SNAP access for farmworkers, bolstering emergency relief and disaster-related wage protection programs, establishing more resources to protect workers from pesticides — rather than calling for complete overhaul. But amid intense budget disputes, securing funding for these measures might still be an uphill battle.
Despite Promises, Heat Guidelines Are Still Absent
Many in the country are feeling the effects of climate change this summer, with rising food prices, torrential floods, drought, wildfires and the resulting air pollution all making headlines. But for many, avoiding the most obvious impact of a warming planet — extreme heat — is as simple as going inside and turning on the fan. Farmworkers don’t have this option while on the job, and though schedules often make the most of cool early-morning hours, U.S. farmworkers spend an average of 21 dangerously hot days in the field annually, a number that experts say could nearly double by 2050. Still, farmworkers in the U.S. have almost no federal heat protections.
This creates health consequences well beyond discomfort: Extreme heat can cause vomiting, headaches and dizziness, as well as potentially fatal problems like dehydration and heat stroke. Even outside of acute crises, chronic exposure to extreme heat can cause kidney disease. One study analyzing health data found that farmworkers were more than 35 times more likely to die from these heat related conditions than other workers; data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that, of the 121 workers who died from heat-related conditions between 2017 and 2022, one fifth worked in agriculture. Beyond these imminent dangers, increased temperatures can set off other events that threaten farmworker health — like wildfires, which present serious smoke inhalation risks.
Even as summer highs continue to climb, heat-related injuries and deaths should not be treated like an inevitability. Common-sense solutions, like shade structures, frequent breaks and accessible drinking water can all dramatically reduce risk for workers. But getting these solutions out into the field has been a barrier. Some farm groups, like the powerful American Farm Bureau Federation, have lobbied against mandatory heat protections, claiming that one-size-fits-all standards would be too burdensome for farmers across a large, climate-diverse country. And while it’s clear that the real concern for producers is lost profits, farmworkers themselves are often hesitant to break for water and shade when they’re being paid piece rates — pennies for every item they harvest — rather than hourly wages, placing their physical and financial wellbeing at odds.
Advocates have seen some success on the state level in recent years, with California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado all implementing limited heat protections, including mandatory breaks and shade and water access. But even with laws in place to protect workers, enforcement has proved inconsistent, with the United Farm Workers (or UFW, the largest such union in the country) attributing the recent death of California farmworker Elidio Hernández to his employer’s neglect as temperatures hit triple digits. And farmworkers outside of those four states have no official protections.
Labor advocates had hoped working conditions would improve after the creation of an OSHA heat task force in 2021, but the agency has yet to formalize any rules, having recently extended the public comment period on its proposed standards until December 2023. Any implementation of new heat rules will be delayed through at least 2025, missing what is likely to be another record-breaking summer.
Any heat-related labor provisions in the farm bill wouldn’t necessarily come into effect any sooner, given the time it takes federal agencies to move through rulemaking, but would add some urgency to the issue. In the event that heat standards are put in place, the farm bill could also be a route for carving out resources for implementation: For example, the rural development title, which supplies infrastructure funding for rural communities, could be a way to allocate funds for water improvements and shade structures.
An Ongoing Immigration Debate
The farm bill could be an avenue to improve many aspects of farmworker’s lives, but there’s one crucial area it won’t address: immigration. Even as immigration becomes an increasingly hot-button issue in the culture wars, there’s a general consensus among farmers, workers and politicians that the immigration system isn’t working well for anyone, a reality that has broader consequences for the food system. The current process makes it difficult for workers to obtain agricultural visas — then penalizes them for working in the country without documentation. But because the demand for farm labor far outpaces the availability of visas, about half the farmworkers in the U.S. today are undocumented, with the majority hailing from Mexico and Central America.
While that arrangement has always marginalized undocumented workers, farms have, until recently, been more or less able to hire enough people to get the job done. But in addition to the pandemic, which shrunk the workforce overall, the recent proliferation of anti-immigrant policies has helped tilt the country towards a farm labor shortage. The Trump administration’s attempts to crack down on illegal immigration made documentation harder to access while the consequences of going without increased. Meanwhile, poor monitoring of the H-2A temporary visa program (the largest visa program for agricultural workers) led to a spike in worker exploitation and abuse cases, underscoring that even legally sanctioned jobs for farmworkers aren’t necessarily safe or desirable.
As a result, 2020 marked the beginning of a protracted agricultural labor shortage: 87 percent of farmers in a 2021 survey said it had become more difficult to find workers, and many have struggled to adapt, even leaving crops unharvested in some areas. For consumers, this leads to shortages that exacerbate the high food prices they’re seeing from inflation.
- A visa program that grants farmworkers temporary legal status to work in the U.S.
Under intense pressure from farm groups to resolve the labor shortage, legislators introduced the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), which attracted bipartisan support and cleared the House in 2021 — but ultimately failed to pass the Senate after GOP leaders withdrew their support, fearing it made the path to citizenship too easy. The bill had its detractors among farmworker groups: The iteration that went before the Senate contained provisions, most notably mandating the use of the Department of Homeland Security’s previously voluntary E-Verify database, that advocates worried could be used to more easily deport undocumented workers. It also would have dramatically expanded the H-2A visa program, without fixing the gap in oversight that’s allowed exploitative conditions and workplace abuse to become so common.
Still, the FWMA did propose a path towards legalization for farmworkers who were already in the country. Though some farm labor groups found its requirements — like providing hard evidence of previous employment, when many jobs are arranged under the table — too restrictive, most still say such a step will be pivotal for immigration reform.
In the time since the FWMA fell short, the situation for both foreign workers and prospective employers has only deteriorated. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed one of the country’s most restrictive immigration bills, mandating E-Verify for workplaces with more than 25 employees and limiting undocumented immigrants’ ability to get driver’s licenses and access medical care. The move sparked panic for Florida farmworkers, and many farms felt the subsequent pinch as workers fled the state. With Texas, Iowa and other states pursuing increasingly harsh immigration policies of their own, the need for federal action to protect farmworkers is even more urgent. Farmers, meanwhile, have had a difficult time securing labor during critical periods.
Despite the increasingly polarized debate on immigration, the farm labor crisis has grown dire enough for workers, farmers and consumers alike that lawmakers are increasingly motivated to act, with a bipartisan delegation introducing a new version of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act for 2023. With support from both industry groups and key farmworker organizations like the UFW, the new iteration of the bill is largely the same as its predecessor. This means it’s likely to attract the same criticism as before. Still, the bill’s bipartisan group of sponsors seem optimistic about its chances of moving through the Senate this session. They may be right; though the proposals haven’t changed since the bill’s last iteration, much else in the country has. The political will to find workable compromises may be sufficient to finally push the legislation over the edge.
Still, even considering the immediacy of the farm labor crisis, it’s important to remember that immigration reform is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to giving farmworkers the dignity and stability they deserve: Providing higher wages, better health care access and basic workplace protections to farmworkers are all moral imperatives in the fight for a fairer food system.
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Top photo by F Armstrong Photo.