Employment and Jobs

Essential Workers, Exploited Labor: Perspectives on Farm Work in the US

March 12, 2024  • Maxwell Johnson

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, farm workers were deemed essential, a rare public acknowledgment that food would not grace our tables without them. Indeed, farm workers are the heart of the United States’ $1.4 trillion agricultural economy. They perform repetitive, wearing tasks – often while exposed to the elements – that place them at great risk of serious, sometimes fatal, injury. Yet, the more than two million people who make up this overwhelmingly immigrant labor force lack federal labor organizing protections, time-and-a-half pay, and other basic guarantees of US labor law. Many farm workers are paid so little that they have trouble putting food on their own tables.

Those who labor so that others may eat do so in some of the most inhumane working conditions in the US. But organizers and high-road employers are taking action to flip the race-to-the-bottom dynamic that has long characterized farm work. On February 28, 2024, the Aspen Institute’s Food & Society Program and Economic Opportunities Program held a panel discussion, titled “Job Quality in the Fields: Improving Farm Work in the US,” on the state of farm work in the US and what is being done to raise job quality in the industry. During the event, the first in a three-part series, we heard from Gerardo Reyes Chavez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), Daniel Costa of the Economic Policy Institute, Dr. L. Lloys Frates of Frutura, and Mireya Loza of Georgetown University. NPR’s Ximena Bustillo moderated the conversation.

Here’s what panelists shared.

Most farm workers have little agency.

At least half of all farm workers are undocumented, and another 10 percent hold temporary status through H-2A guest worker visas, which bind workers to an employer sponsor. Costa calculated that “only 40% of the workforce has actual agency and rights,” with the power to “come forward and complain when there’s lawbreaking on the job” by employers. Guest workers and those without legal status might be fired and blacklisted – without an avenue of recourse – if they speak up, Loza has found. The H-2A program is growing due to labor shortages, a trend Loza views with concern. “No one in the US would take a contract that your belonging – all of your rights – are tied to one employer. Think about that. Would you want that for your children?”

“Laws without enforcement are just pretty words on paper.”

The limited labor standards that apply to farm workers frequently go unenforced, a failure that panelists attributed to a lack of state and federal oversight capacity. Costa pointed out, by way of illustration, that the money spent on labor law enforcement is a fraction of that spent on immigration enforcement. Employers rarely face inspection by the US Department of Labor, whose enforcement arm is chronically underfunded and understaffed. And when inspections do occur, more often than not, violations are found, Costa added. Three in four investigations of farm labor contractors, which operate as staffing firms for farm employers, find violations.

The enforcement gap is such that workers’ rights organizations, namely the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, have taken on the responsibility of ensuring employers follow labor standards. After all, in the words of Chavez, “laws without enforcement are just pretty words on paper.”

Farm workers deserve better job quality, and there are organizations striving to make that happen.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program (FFP) has shown that “through the market … [FFP is] able to create a different reality for workers in the field,” explained Chavez. The program brings together large purchasers, from Taco Bell to Aramark, under an agreement requiring they source produce from farms that adhere to the program’s code of conduct, which covers wages, safety, and more. Independent auditing by FFP’s council, worker education, and a hotline for reporting violations provide mechanisms to ensure compliance. Workers at farms covered by FFP also receive bonuses, totaling more than $45 million since 2011, thanks to a small premium that buyers pay to program participants. The results of FFP are clear, said Chavez. “If people are treated with dignity and respect, as we have seen by the experience of implementing the Fair Food Program and in all the operations where it is currently implemented, people want to stay.”

Farm labor contractors are notorious for their poor treatment of workers. In the industry, Frates sees a status quo stuck in the 20th century, with workers treated as disposable. But this makes little economic sense – nor is it morally justifiable. “We cannot get enough workers,” stated Frates. “And a skilled worker who is trained is extremely valuable to the grower.” California Harvesters, on whose board Frates serves, is demonstrating that high-road practices are possible when supplying labor. Contractors typically charge growers more than the cost of providing workers, allowing them to make a profit. California Harvesters, however, is organized as a worker trust. It charges growers the same amount as contractors, but the “profit” earned is reinvested in providing benefits, higher wages, and skills training to workers.

Like all workers, farm workers should be able to live full lives.

For too long, farm workers have been relegated to the margins of society and left unprotected by the fundamental rights guaranteed to workers. Growing up, Loza saw what such disregard meant for members of her family who were guest workers. “I think to myself,” Loza reflected, that “you don’t actually see what they’re missing out on. They don’t get to go to their kids’ birthday parties. They don’t get to have a day off per se. They don’t get to be full human beings at work.”

Models that place workers at the center, like those of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and California Harvesters, offer promise for bringing dignity to farm work. “I think that we need to see more and more communities organizing,” Chavez concluded. Rather than settle for “the limited protections that might exist,” he continued, workers and organizers should “set examples with things that actually work through the market. If the government is falling short on protecting workers, then let’s show them the way.”

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The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.

Food & Society at the Aspen Institute brings together public health leaders, policymakers, researchers, farmers, chefs, food makers, and entrepreneurs to find practical solutions to food system challenges and inequities. Learn more at https://www.aspeninstitute.org/programs/food-and-society-program/