by Hillary Alamene, Communications Intern

This year's National Farmworker Awareness Week takes place March 25-April 1. The Association of Farmworker Community Programs states National Farmworker Awareness Week (NFAW) is a week of action for communities and individuals to bring attention to farmworkers and honor them for the contributions they make to our daily lives. In the United States, the topic of farmworkers often focuses on the contributions of migrant or seasonal workers in states such as California or Texas, yet, NFAW also acknowledges the various challenges farmworkers face, such as immigration laws, child labor laws, public health issues, and the lack of gender parity within the industry.

This annual celebration began in 1998, initiated by a nonprofit organization called Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF). In championing this week, the intention was to “link campus groups nationally with speakers, films and resources.” Beyond student involvement and experiential learning, SAF also prioritized community engagement and education in their efforts to inform the general public about the status of farmworkers within the United States. 

Taken from SAF’s website, these facts shed light on the role of farmworkers in the United States:

Farmworkers feed the world—85% of our fresh fruits and vegetables are handpicked. There are an estimated 2.5-3 million men, women, and children who work in the fields in the United States. Farms are in every state, including yours, yet farmworkers remain largely invisible and continue to live and work in horrific conditions. We demand dignity for farmworkers!”

Although industrial agriculture relies on machinery for increased efficiency, farmworkers often work by hand to remove fruits and vegetables, such as strawberries, turnips, and parsley, to ensure minimal bruising. When the pandemic first began in 2020, the LA Times shared the testimonials of farmworkers working in the San Joaquin Valley in California. While many Americans transitioned to conducting meetings over Zoom, farmworkers were designated as ‘essential workers', and continued to labor in the fields. These workers were no longer being paid an hourly rate, but rather a “piece rate” - a rate that is based on the number of fruits and vegetables picked within a given amount of time. In response, one farmworker shared, “you can’t pick strawberries over Zoom.” This put mounting pressure on farmworkers to pick at high speeds, despite increased safety concerns due to the pandemic. Often, farm work does not allow for adequate social distancing or frequent hand washing, which are both critical public health measures during a healthcare crisis. 

Farm work is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. The people who plant and harvest our fruits and vegetables suffer from the highest rate of toxic chemical injuries of any other workers in the nation and have higher incidences of heat stress, dermatitis, urinary tract infections, parasitic infections, and tuberculosis than other wage-earners. We demand safe working conditions for farmworkers!”

One area of concern associated with industrial agriculture is the use of pesticides and the lack of health services for farmworkers. In a study conducted by Stephanie Farquhar, PhD et. al, researchers assessed the occupational hazards experienced by Indigenous and Latino migrant workers in Oregon. They found that only about half of the farmworkers within their sample were aware that they had come into contact with pesticides, indicating that there is an even smaller percentage of workers who may be aware of its health implications. Workers within this sample reported “they had breathed pesticides in the air (61%), touched plants with visible residue (39%), and had been accidentally sprayed by a plane or tractor (34%). Yet only 57% of the farmworkers who reported working in treated areas said they received any type of pesticide safety training”. This same study found “that only 39% of Indigenous workers and 62% of Latino workers had reported ever having been to a health clinic in Oregon, and only 14% of all workers had the option of obtaining health insurance through their employer.” 

A report from Farmworker Justice details the health outcomes of those who suffer from pesticide exposure, noting that pesticide poisoning can often manifest in different forms, depending on the site of exposure. Symptoms may include a runny nose, muscle cramps in one’s arms and legs, headaches, nausea, and insomnia - among a host of others. But because these symptoms may mimic the flu, complaints are often ignored by healthcare professionals. “Farmworkers are the only group of workers not covered by a federal right-to-know regulation that requires employees to be informed of the health effects of specific chemicals they encounter at work," says Farmworker Justice. Unfortunately, this act of negligence has reportedly increased one’s risk of infertility, birth defects, endocrine disruption, neurological disorders, and cancer.

“Farmworkers are treated differently under the law. Overtime, unemployment insurance, and even protection when joining a union are not guaranteed under federal law. [Almost all major federal laws passed in the 1930s] excluded farmworkers. The Fair Labor Standards Act was amended in 1978 to mandate minimum wage for farmworkers on large farms only and it still has not made provisions for overtime. We demand just living and working conditions for farmworkers and an end to unfair treatment under the law.”

At the time the study by Farquar et al. was published, farm workers were required to receive the federal minimum wage of $7.25. For youth, this minimum wage was $4.25. Today, there is much more variability in the number of states where workers are covered by state minimum wage laws; however, little progress has been made to ensure overtime compensation. The National Agricultural Law Center notes that only six states provide overtime compensation: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Minnesota, New York, and more recently, Washington. Oregon is the seventh state to work towards ensuring overtime compensation for this particular group; however, this will not take place immediately. As was the case in Washington, California, and New York, overtime compensation in Oregon will be phased-in incrementally over the course of five years. From 2023 to 2024, farm workers must first work 55 hours per week before receiving additional compensation, then 48 hours a week from 2025-2026; and 40 hours a week by 2027.

In light of this information, it is evident that we must advocate for a collective overhaul of the agribusiness industry. In doing so, we will create a more sustainable food system. If you want to learn more about how to improve the working conditions of farm workers, consult the following resources for more information:

  1. Farmworker Justice Resource Library
  2. Student Action with Farmworkers Resource Library
  3. Farmworker Awareness Week Toolkit from the Equitable Food Initiative
  4. Rural Agricultural Health and Safety information from the Rural Health Information Hub
  5. Pesticides Action Network: Farmworkers
  6. Essential and in Crisis: A Review of the Public Health Threats Facing Farmworkers in the US