Shedding Light on Black and African American Farmworkers

February is Black History Month and today, 7 February is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD). In light of these events, Farmworker Justice would like to bring attention to the Black and African American farmworkers who harvest our crops on a daily basis. When people think of farmworkers, they most often think of Mexicans or Latinos. And while the majority of farmworkers are indeed Mexican, a small percentage of farmworkers are Black or African American. As most of us in the farmworker community have come to realize, up-to-date data on farmworkers is difficult to come by. However, the National Agricultural Worker Survey from 2001-2002 found that 4% of those interviewed self-identified as Black or African American (out of 6,472 workers interviewed). More recent data from the US State Department shows that in 2012 the government issued 65,345 H-2A visas to foreign workers and 1,135 were from an African country and 58 were from Haiti (the only Caribbean country that had H-2A workers). Although Black/African American farmworkers are a small percentage of the larger farmworker population, they do make up a larger portion in certain regions like Florida or other eastern states.

Unfortunately, neither US nor foreign-born Black/African American farmworkers have escaped mistreatment and abuse at the hands of their employers. Before sugar cane was mechanized, many Jamaican farmworkers came over to work in the sugar cane fields and were often cheated out of wages or gravely mistreated (see “In the Kingdom of Big Sugar” by Marie Brenner). More recently Farmworker Justice and Florida Legal Services reached a settlement in a case against a Florida potato farmer that was charged with labor trafficking violations for employing homeless, drug-addicted men from the streets of Jacksonville, FL. The majority of workers in this case were African American.

When we talk about HIV and farmworkers, we also tend to supplement the scarce farmworker data available with data on HIV among Latinos. However, on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, Farmworker Justice would like to shine a light on the HIV/AIDS rates in the Black/African American community in the United States as a reminder that not all farmworkers are Latino. A study done over 20 years ago in 1988 found a very high HIV/AIDS rate among farmworkers in Belle Glade, FL. This is one of the few studies done on HIV in the farmworker community where the majority of participants were Black/African American. However, it is impossible to make any assumptions about current rates of HIV in Black/African American farmworkers based on a study done over two decades ago in the early years of the HIV epidemic.

However, we do know that African Americans are the racial/ethnic group most affected by HIV/AIDS in the United States. African Americans represent approximately 12% of the US populations but account for almost 44% of all new HIV infections. The CDC reports that 1 in 16 African American men and 1 in 32 African American women will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. There are many reasons why African Americans are at such high risk of HIV infection including poverty, discrimination, stigma, limited access to high-quality health care, homelessness, fear, lack of education on HIV/AIDS, and negative perceptions of HIV testing, to name a few. All of these reasons are also issues that farmworkers deal with on a daily basis too.

So, what can we do?

The theme for this year’s NBHAAD is “I Am My Brother’s/Sister’s Keeper: Fight HIV/AIDS” which means that we all need to be part of the solution to the HIV epidemic. Being part of the solution means getting tested for HIV regularly, getting educated on HIV/AIDS, becoming involved by raising awareness and fighting stigma, and getting treated if you are HIV positive.

For more information:
“In the Kingdom of Big Sugar” by Marie Brenner
Farmworker Justice Press Release: Florida Potato Grower Charged With Labor Trafficking Agrees to Settlement Agreement with Farmworkers Comes After Accusations that Grower and Contractor Preyed on Vulnerable Homeless Men
Castro KG, et al. Transmission of HIV in Belle-Glade, Florida - Lessons for Other Communities in the United-States. Science 239(4836):193-197, 1988.
HIV Among African Americans Fact Sheet
National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day