Who are farmworkers?
An estimated 2.4 million farmworkers work on farms and ranches in the United States (2017 Census of Agriculture). The large majority of farmworkers are immigrants, and approximately 36% lack authorized work status under current U.S. laws. According to the most recent report of the Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey (from 2019-20):
- Foreign-born workers make up 68% of the workforce
- United States citizens make up 36% of the workforce
- Legal permanent residents make up 19% of the workforce
In general, education and literacy among farmworkers are limited. On average, 9th grade is the limit of farmworkers’ formal education.
About 15% of farmworkers are “migrant”, meaning they travel a significant distance from a home base to find work at one or more agricultural employers. Some travel across the U.S.-Mexico border and some travel within the United States, especially in Florida, south Texas, Arizona and California. Farmworkers’ jobs are spread throughout the country, but a significant percentage, perhaps one-third, live and work in California.
Selected farmworker statistics based on National Agricultural Worker Survey (2019-2020 reporting period).
“Stories from the Field” is a collaboration between Farmworker Justice and photojournalist David Bacon. Farmworkers, their families, and communities face serious challenges every day. Through this innovative collaboration, we aim to give voice to the 2 million farmworkers and their families who would otherwise not be heard. While each of these portraits tells a unique story about the reality farmworkers face, collectively the stories document the array of social problems that must addressed in order to ensure ethical and just working and living conditions on our nation’s farms.
Farmworker communities generally deal with a high level of poverty; few farmworkers have employment benefits or access to unemployment benefits. According to data from 2019-2020:
- At least 20% of farmworker families earned incomes placing them below the poverty line
- Annual income for an individual was roughly $20,000 – $24,999
- Annual income for farmworker families was roughly $25,000- $29,999
- The average hourly wage was $13.59.
Most farmworkers do not receive commonplace benefits like sick leave, paid vacation or health insurance. Because many agricultural employers are exempt from unemployment taxes, numerous farmworkers are not eligible for unemployment benefits even though they perform jobs that are seasonal and intermittent.
Despite the high level of poverty, most farmworkers do not receive any public benefits. In 2019-2020, only 13% of farmworkers received food stamps, 9% received WIC (a supplemental nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and 39% received health insurance through a government program, like Medicaid.
Women, who make up roughly 34% of the agricultural workforce, face particular obstacles in the male-dominated agricultural sector, including sexual harassment by supervisors. Human Rights Watch’s report Cultivating Fear: The Vulnerability of Immigrant Farmworkers in the US to Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment, describes rape, stalking, unwanted touching, exhibitionism, or vulgar and obscene language by supervisors, employers, and others in positions of power. Most farmworkers interviewed said they had experienced such treatment or knew others who had. And most said they had not reported these or other workplace abuses, fearing reprisals.
Over the last few decades, increasing numbers of new migrants are arriving in the U.S. from indigenous communities in Mexico and Guatemala. In 2019-2020, 10% of farmworkers self-identified as indigenous. Although their numbers are growing, cultural and language barriers prevent most indigenous migrants from assimilating into mainstream Latino culture, as Mixtec, Zapotec, Trique and Mayan are the primary languages spoken rather than Spanish. Such cultural barriers make these workers easy prey for unscrupulous employers. Indigenous farmworkers often work in the most labor-intensive crops, but are paid the least amount of money. Many are undocumented, and are more likely to accept substandard working conditions, wages, and housing conditions, rather than risk retaliation by complaining. Major challenges to developing outreach and educational approaches for this population are the inability to translate the spoken indigenous languages into a written format, the variety of languages/dialects spoken, the lack of service providers who speak these languages, and the distinct cultural traditions of these groups of workers.