Current methods of production of crops, like corn and soybeans, rely heavily on machinery. Thousands of acres can be planted, sprayed and harvested by just a few people operating large equipment like tractors and combines; the latest versions of which have built-in GPS and computers to analyze the field.
But for raising and processing fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry, the agriculture industry still relies primarily on human labor. Farm and food workers are mainly an immigrant workforce, many of whom are undocumented. They are often poorly paid and work in harsh or dangerous conditions. This is just the latest chapter in a long history: the US was built on exploitative agricultural labor that dates back to slavery. Today, however, some of the most successful worker-organizing strategies are emerging from the fields, as farm and food workers fight for their rights and dignity.
The struggles of today’s food and farmworkers are not new. The National Farm Worker Ministry spells out that since the earliest US history, agricultural workers have been a disenfranchised group, often brought against their will and denied the right to vote once in the US. A brief examination of a history of US farm labor shows that it is inseparable from a history of state-sponsored racism. 1
In the 1600s, indentured servants were brought from England with the agreement to work as field laborers in exchange for their passage to the so-called New World. When farm labor demand began to outstrip the supply of willing servants, land owners and bosses expanded the African slave trade, developing an economy reliant on the labor of enslaved people kidnapped from Africa. The practice continued legally for 200 years, enriching businesses in both North and South, until the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Following the war, constitutional amendments passed prohibiting slavery and granting citizenship to formerly enslaved men, and promises were made to help integrate them into society. But instead of granting formerly enslaved people their promised “40 acres and a mule,” the white power structure passed the sweeping Jim Crow laws of the 1890s, institutionalizing discrimination and ensuring that cruel treatment of African-Americans would continue for decades to come. As a result, many former slaves and their descendants continued working in the fields sharecropping or to pay off debts, often in conditions not notably better than enslavement.
Meanwhile, farming was becoming big business from coast to coast. The US turned to workers from China, Japan and the Philippines to meet the demand for labor – until the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law to ban an ethnic group, banned immigration of Chinese workers. As the Chinese workforce decreased in the following decades and labor demand swelled into the period of World War I, growers increasingly turned to labor from Mexico, including lobbying for creation of the first guest worker program.
As agriculture became more industrialized, related sectors like food processing did as well. The horrors of the rapidly-expanding meatpacking industry were revealed in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle, subsequent public outcry and union organizing brought about food safety laws and greatly improved worker conditions in meatpacking plants.
During the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, white farmers from the Midwest and elsewhere were forced to sell or abandon their farms and become migrant workers. With thousands of white farmers now in need of work, one-half million Mexican-Americans were deported or pressured to leave. A package of important federal labor laws protecting worker rights also passed in this period, but they excluded farmworkers and domestic laborers. Not coincidentally, these jobs were most commonly held by African-Americans and immigrants.
A series of temporary guest worker programs began in the 1940s. The most well-known of these, the Bracero program, recruited workers from Mexico. It was eventually ended due to widespread worker abuses and wage theft. Organizing by the United Farm Workers (UFW) contributed to the program’s end. Founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, the UFW united Filipino and Mexico workers in a movement that brought national attention to the struggles of workers in California fields – and built models still used by farmworker organizers today.
In the meatpacking industry, union victories kept wages high from the 1960s through the early 1980s – as much as 18 percent higher than in other manufacturing jobs. 2 In the 1980s, however, packing plants began to move out of cities and into rural areas closer to livestock feedlots, transforming the jobs from middle-class employment with a predominantly white and African-American workforce to again being a dangerous, low-wage job relying mostly on undocumented immigrants.
Today, immigrants produce the majority of our food, from farm to processing plant to restaurants and grocery stores. Wages are low, conditions are often harsh or dangerous, and immigrants not legally allowed to work in the US are often afraid to report abuses for fear of deportation.
According to the most recent Department of Labor National Agricultural Workers Survey, as of 2014, 80 percent of US farmworkers were Hispanic, which included 68 percent born in Mexico and 27 percent born in the US. The foreign-born farmworkers interviewed had been in the US an average of 18 years, and 53 percent were authorized to work. Eighty-four percent of farmworkers were settled workers and 16 percent were migrants. Farmworkers’ median annual farm incomes in the previous year were just over $17,000. 3
The 47 percent of farmworkers who are undocumented and not authorized to work – and the many similar workers in meatpacking plants and elsewhere across the food chain –face struggles. While most federal and state labor laws, including those regarding wages and safety training, protect all workers equally, regardless of immigration status 4, many undocumented workers either do not know these rights or are afraid to assert them.
Many farms hire workers under the H-2A guestworker program, which grants visas for temporary or seasonal work. The program is costly for employers, who must provide housing, transportation, wage guarantees and other benefits, though these requirements do not necessarily guarantee better working and living conditions on the ground. In recent years, administration of the program, which provides up to 45,000 visas per year, has been delayed, which can have significant consequences for farmers left without labor to plant or harvest on time. 5
Year-round food and farm industries such as dairy farms and poultry processing plants are not eligible for H-2A workers, and many of these have come to rely on undocumented labor. Recent investigative reporting has revealed that the meatpacking and poultry industries in particular have developed illegal or questionable strategies to recruit vulnerable foreign workers, including targeting refugees, who cannot return home, and co-opting a little-known immigration program intended for businesses facing legitimate labor shortages. 6 As in decades and centuries past, the industries treat these workers as dispensable, knowing that if they speak up, get injured, deported or even killed, there will always be someone else to fill the job.
Still, in an environment of increasingly hardline immigration enforcement 7, the produce industry is worried about labor shortages — and so it is investing heavily in automation. Robots that can plant, weed and even harvest delicate fruits and vegetables are already working in some fields and facilities, and rapid technological innovation means they will likely become much more common in coming years. 8
Whether in vegetable fields or meatpacking plants, farm and food workers face hard, often dangerous working conditions.
Planting and harvesting crops, from asparagus to zucchini, involves repetitive motions, often being stooped or bent for many hours, lifting heavy buckets of produce and operating machinery such as tractors that can lead to injuries. The work is performed outdoors in hot weather, often without shade or adequate water.
Breaks are infrequent — sometimes workers are punished for taking a bathroom break, and the common method of paying workers by the piece penalizes those who do take breaks, because they’ll make less money. Workers often face nausea, dizziness, heat exhaustion, dehydration and heat stroke, which is the leading cause of farmworker death. 9
Farmworkers are also regularly exposed to toxic chemicals from applying pesticides or herbicides (often done without adequate protection), from handling produce that has been recently sprayed, or, in some instances, from being directly in the path of a pesticide application. The apparently strict rules about aerial or other large-scale chemical application, including what is not to be done when people are in the vicinity, are not always followed, because fines are low. 10 And many female farmworkers are sexually harassed and abused by their supervisors or other workers. 11 Wage theft is also standard practice. 12
Conditions at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also known as factory farms, are no better. Gases from manure pits including hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and methane fill the air, 13 along with dust and irritants known as endotoxins. 14
One quarter of CAFO workers experience chronic bronchitis and nearly three quarters suffer from acute bronchitis during the year. 15 Chronic exposure to hydrogen sulfide can cause brain damage and heart problems, and even at low levels can be deadly. 16 Regular inhalation of particulate matter such as dust can cause both respiratory and heart problems, 17 while high levels of ammonia can cause asphyxiation. From 1992 to 1997, there were twelve documented cases of worker deaths in US manure lagoons. 18
For several decades of the mid-20th century, meatpacking jobs were some of the best paid in the manufacturing sector and lifted a diverse workforce into the middle class. Today, however, jobs in meat and poultry processing plants are some of the most dangerous and poorly compensated.
Workers kill, eviscerate and cut up thousands of animals every day, working in conditions that are humid, slippery, loud, hot or below freezing. Respiratory problems, skin infections and falls are common.
Work is determined by the speed of the processing line; at poultry plants, for example, line speeds have doubled in the last forty years, from 70 birds per minute in 1979 to 140 in 2015. Breaks are discouraged or denied, even for the bathroom; an Oxfam America report on poultry plants reports that many workers resort to wearing diapers. 19
On the fast-moving line, workers make the same cutting, pulling or hanging motions thousands of times a day; these repetitive motions cause crippling musculoskeletal injuries. 20 Workers also wield sharp knives and work with fast-moving heavy machinery. A 2017 report by the National Employment Law Project found that an average of 27 poultry workers a day suffer work-related amputations or hospitalizations in the US, and in a survey of severe injuries reported at over 14,000 companies, two that process poultry and beef rank fourth and sixth. 21
Throughout US history, agricultural and food workers have been some of the most exploited workers in the country. But they have also done some of the most powerful organizing. In the 1960s, United Farm Workers held large-scale strikes at the peak of the grape harvest to force higher wages from large farmers and formed a union to negotiate with growers over the long term. 22 In meatpacking plants, unions such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (which later joined with the American Federation of Labor to become the AFL-CIO, the largest US labor group) and the United Packinghouse Workers of America won better conditions, transforming those jobs for several decades into a secure path to the middle class.
In the last decade, at a time when union membership is at an all-time low and the labor movement has suffered many legislative and cultural defeats, some of the best worker organizing momentum continues to come from the fields and restaurant floors. When the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a group of immigrant tomato-pickers in Immokalee, Florida, had no luck getting the big tomato growers they worked for to meet demands for pay increases, CIW turned to the consumer instead. They enlisted student and faith organizations in their cause, demanding that the fast food companies that bought from those growers pay just a penny more per pound of tomatoes to give the workers a living wage.
This strategy has had remarkable success: after years of pressure, most major fast food companies and many supermarket chains and food service companies have signed CIW’s Fair Food Agreement, pledging that they will buy tomatoes and certain other produce only from growers who meet labor standards. The groundbreaking Fair Food Program – the implementation of the agreement on the ground – guarantees not only the penny-per-pound raise, but a host of other human rights including freedom from wage theft and sexual harassment, and provides a system of worker education, third-party monitoring and grower accountability.
Meanwhile, fast food workers across the US have led the campaign for a higher minimum wage in the Fight for 15. In just a few years, an hourly wage that in 2012 was too high to be called minimum – $15 per hour – was passed into law in states and cities around the country.
Groups leading such causes work together formally in the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA). This coalition of worker-based organizations is composed of members who plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve and sell food, who also organize to build a food system that respects worker rights, based on the principles of social, environmental and racial justice. As of 2018, FCWA has 31 member organizations, representing approximately 340,000 food chain workers in the US and Canada.
For many issues addressed on this site, we recommend purchasing food whenever possible from local family-owned farms, which are generally better stewards of the land and water than large industrial farms. Labor, however, has all too often been overlooked by those interested in sustainable food and agriculture, and so it is not a given that small-scale local farms necessarily have better labor standards than large industrialized farms. In fact, if they chose to, large farms could pay workers more and provide better working conditions than smaller operations with less financial cushion.
Recent research has documented abuse, low wages, isolation and poor living conditions of workers on some farms that sell at popular farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture programs, and farm-to-table restaurants. 23 Those interested in sustainable food and agriculture must be as concerned about the people all along the food chain as we are about what goes into or onto the food.
For many years, the only label that addressed farm labor was the “fair trade” stamp — but it applied only to foreign products. Fortunately, in the last few years, more labor certification programs for US products have been developed for consumers who want to support not just good environmental practices, but also the rights and livelihoods of the people along the food chain.
However, most food, whether fruits, vegetables, dairy or meat products (packaged or unpackaged), does not come with a label attesting to a farm’s labor practices. To support farm and food workers in more ways than with your purchasing power, check out the National Farm Worker Ministry, Coalition of Immokalee Workers or CATA (The Farmworker Support Committee). Many farmworker support organizations work locally; find out if there is a group in your state that you can support by volunteering, donating or advocating for policy change.