Every day, Americans walk into grocery stores across the country, unaware of the exploitative practices, human rights abuses, and systemic issues that make it possible to purchase fresh produce at an affordable price. Immigrant and migrant farm workers make up an estimated 73 percent of the nation’s agricultural workforce. They play an essential role in putting healthy food on our tables. Yet, these workers exist in the shadows and are expected to work in dangerous conditions for unlivable wages.
In the latest Conversations on Food Justice event, the Institute’s Food & Society Program and Share Our Strength gathered four farm labor advocates to explore the social, structural, and economic barriers that impact immigrant and migrant farm workers and their families.
Economic conditions lead to farm worker exploitation
For decades, the US agriculture industry, which combined with food, and related industries contributed $1.109 trillion to the nation’s gross domestic product in 2019, has relied on cheap, sometimes forced, labor to ensure it turns a profit without passing on high costs to consumers. “The struggle is that this country is not willing to pay for the true cost of food,” said Pakou Hang of the Hmong American Farmers Association.
This has created an uneven power dynamic between farmers and farm workers—one exacerbated by the fact that nearly 50 percent of the farm labor workforce is made up of undocumented men and women who are struggling to feed their own families. Because they fear a loss of income and deportation, many farm workers remain quiet about the exploitative and abusive practices they endure.
“The best way to keep people silent and marginalized is to threaten them,” said Mily Trevino-Saucedo, executive director and co-founder of the Alianza Nacional de Campesina. She pointed out that the first people to know about a worker’s documentation status are the ones who hire them. If workers complain, they are fired or intimidated with threats of deportation. They have no recourse, resources, or support.
The impacts of exploitative farm labor
Given their insufficient wages and the high cost of living in states like California, most farm workers are both housing and food insecure. Those who live in the US typically have substandard housing, or they are forced to double up with one or more families to afford high rents. Many workers commute hours each day between Mexico and border states, leaving their homes in the middle of the night and laboring all day before returning home late in the evening. “They work and live on Red Bull to give them energy to stay awake,” said Emma Torres, CEO of Campesinos Sin Fronteras.
Farm workers are also on the frontlines of climate change as high temperatures and heat waves create even more dangerous working conditions. “Many are afraid to leave the field if they are experiencing heat stroke or heat stress,” Torres said. “They don’t have health insurance, and they don’t have a secure job that pays them if they get sick.”
Female farm workers are often paid lower wages than men. Some work invisibly alongside their husbands and never see a paycheck. They also fear sexual harassment and assault. “Women are being harassed by crew leaders, supervisors, owners, and co-workers,” said Trevino-Saucedo. “It has become common, and women are afraid to complain because they won’t have a job next season.”
Ultimately, these factors impact the physical health and mental well-being of farm workers. “If you are facing extreme exploitation, humiliation, sexual harassment, and even physical violence every day, you take that home with you every night,” said Greg Asbed, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. “You can’t sleep. You can’t interact with your children the way you want to. That builds up over time.”
Consumer-driven change is possible
While advocates push for legislation and economic incentives that protect the farm labor workforce, every speaker agreed that consumers hold the most power to change conditions for farm workers. “The food market is a hierarchical system,” Asbed said. “But it doesn’t end with the major buyers like Walmart and McDonalds. Consumers are at the top of the food market. If we act concertedly and pressure companies to act differently, then they will change how they do business.”
Consumers who are interested in influencing the agriculture industry should educate themselves on where their food comes from and get comfortable paying more for groceries. “If you care about a just food system, don’t go to a big-box grocery store. Go to a cooperative, or start one,” Pakou said. “Consumers need to be more critical about where food is coming from. They need to ask questions and make tough decisions.”