Today marks the beginning of National Farmworker Awareness Week, created to draw attention to the 2.5 million agricultural workers in the United States (The Hill). The stereotypical image of the American farmer is reminiscent of a popular children’s song: a white, Anglo Old MacDonald works his small family farm, cheerily tending a menagerie of happy animals. Today, farmworkers are a hyper-exploited class of workers laboring at some of the country’s most dangerous and worst-compensated jobs. Three-quarters are Latine, with two-thirds born in Mexico or Central America. A third are women; hundreds of thousands are minors. Their average level of educational attainment is only 9th grade. Almost none are able to access programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Medicaid. The people that feed this country are “some of the most socially and economically disadvantaged people in the U.S.,” seeing none of the profits of a $1.264 trillion domestic agriculture industry (National Center for Farmworker Health).
Farmworkers aren’t protected against retaliation for organizing a union and are exempt from the standard federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour, ensuring that they earn the least of all U.S. workers. Children under 12 work in the fields (NFWM). Hundreds of thousands of children and teenagers work legally as farmworkers. Farmworkers and their families are exposed to dangerous heat and sprayed with toxic pesticides from airplanes (NFWM), leading to hundreds of workplace fatalities each year. Agricultural work is one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States—far more dangerous than working as a police officer (CNBC).
For decades, the United States has exploited immigrant agricultural workers temporarily while denying them residence or citizenship, first through the Bracero Program and now through H-2A work visas. But even U.S. citizens working in the fields are disenfranchised as second-class citizens (NCFH).
Norma Flores López was born to farmworker parents, both of whom were born in the United States. Her parents dropped out of school before the end of 6th grade to work alongside her grandparents in the fields. “It didn’t matter that they were U.S. born, and I point that out because I think that people tend to think like this is an issue of people who are undocumented,” says Flores López, the Chief Programs Officer for Justice for Migrant Women. “Pointing out the desperate poverty that my U.S. born [parents] grew up in is important. They ended up not being able to get an education, but instead were dedicated to a life of working in the field, and that’s what we ended up being raised as well” (The Hill).
Earlier this month, hundreds of farmworkers and supporters marched for five days over 50 miles to demand that Publix, Kroger, and Wendy’s join the Fair Food Program. Retailers participating in the program, started by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, publicly commit to not purchasing food from abusive employers. The march started outside a camp where “hundreds of farmworkers were forced into brutal working and living conditions under threats of violence, deportation and insurmountable debts” (Democracy Now).
The irony of National Farmworker Awareness Week is that it is celebrated by the same U.S. government that intentionally maintains a racialized, two-tier labor system that keeps agricultural workers as an underclass denied the legal rights offered to every other worker (Department of Labor). The result is a nation consuming the fruits of “modern-day slavery” (Democracy Now), with supermarkets stocked with produce picked by child laborers paid poverty wages, denied education, and sprayed with carcinogenic pesticides (Vecinos). Farmworkers need much more than mere “awareness.” They need our solidarity and material support.
• The last week of March is National Farmworker Awareness Week.
• U.S. agricultural production depends on a hyper-exploited class of workers denied standard labor protections, including hundreds of thousands of legal child laborers.
• Farm work is one of the most dangerous and worst-compensated professions in the United States.