Several quality news articles in the past few weeks included stories that remind us of the hard work of the workers who plant, harvest and process our food. They also highlight challenges that farmworkers face as a result of poor wages and working conditions, inequality resulting from lack of immigration status and disempowerment in the political system, and structural racism.
As you plan, prepare and enjoy your Thanksgiving meal, here is some food for thought. Around 2.4 million farmworkers labor on US farms and ranches. According to 2011-12 data from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), about 71% of farmworkers who work in crop production are immigrants. At least half, or 1.2 million farmworkers, are undocumented.
Farmworkers’ average total individual income (including farm and nonfarm work) is $15,000-$17,499. The average farmworker family’s total income is $17,500- $19,999. The federal poverty level for a family of 3 was $19,090 in 2012. Twenty-five percent of all farmworkers had a family income below the federal poverty line. However, because the survey results did not include dependents living outside of the United States, this number may not completely reflect the number of families living in poverty.
There is evidence that undocumented farmworkers make less than their documented coworkers, in part because the better jobs go to those with status, and in part due to the higher instances of wage theft that they experience. This must-read Guardian article, which profiles the US’s poorest border town, Colonia Muniz in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, describes the exploitation of undocumented workers there. The article features an undocumented farmworker, Theresa Azuara, a member of La Union del Pueblo Entero, (LUPE). Theresa describes an instance in which an agricultural employer didn’t pay her at all for two weeks of work. “She said she accepted exploitation as a part of the price of being in the US illegally until she started to attend meetings of [LUPE].”
The Desert Sun recently finished a 3 piece series titled “Death in the Sun” which profiles the large numbers of deaths and illnesses from heat stress in agriculture, the passage of the recent California heat stress legislation and advocacy to prevent heat stress illness.
On a lighter note, NPR’s morning edition is doing a series on the foods of the season and the people behind them. The first story profiles a farmworker, Jose Martinez, who migrates to pick apples in Pennsylvania. Jose’s children attend East Coast Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs in the different locations where they live throughout the year.
This week’s story focuses on the sweet potato harvest. NPR interviewed a couple, Nabor Segundo and Rosalia Morales, who come to North Carolina from Florida for to work in sweet potatoes and tobacco. Nabor describes the arduous nature of picking sweet potatoes. Nabor and Rosalia also have children in the migrant head start programs.
There is a nice op-ed from our friends at CAUSE in Santa Barbara County, California, "Extend Gratitude to Farmworkers: The Food on our Tables is Picked by People Overworked and Underpaid."
Finally, an interview with “Eric Schlosser on the People Behind Our Food” in Civil Eats offers some solutions to people interested in supporting workers in the food system. Schlosser urges readers to support food workers by fighting for an increase in the minimum wage, support companies that are treating workers well and “fight against the demonization of immigrants in this country. Speak out against the demagogues who are trying to get votes by scapegoating some of the poorest and most hard-working people in the United States.” Farmworker Justice couldn’t agree more.
As you enjoy your Thanksgiving meal, honor all of the workers who made your meal possible. Farmworkers and other food sector workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We therefore appreciate the food magazine, Bon Appétit, for encouraging its readers in its holiday giving article to assist farmworkers by donating to Farmworker Justice.
We appreciate your support for the work of Farmworker Justice. Our policy analysis, advocacy, litigation, education, training, public education and coalition-building empower farmworkers to build a brighter future.