Migrant Farm Workers

“The industrial food system as we know it today is the child of the plantation system of agriculture. They are both built upon exploited labor, dispossession and exploitation of land from indigenous peoples, the destruction of rural culture and land, consolidation of power and land in the ruling classes, and the forced migration of peoples”

Blain Snipstal, Black Dirt Farm



US Farm Work Stats

  • 2-3 million farmworkers in the US
  • Most in California, Texas, Washington, Florida, Oregon, and North Carolina.
  • Of farmworkers in the United States, 75% were born in Mexico.
  • Farmer workers are:
    • 53% undocumented (without legal authorization)
    • 25% are United States citizens
    • 21% are lawful immigrants
      • H-2a guest/temporary workers
  • The average income of a farm worker is $15-17,499
  • Average family’s total income from farmworkers is $17,500- $19,999


H-2 Guest/Temporary Workers

  • H-2a temporary or guest workers are increasing in the US in the last few years
    • Can stay only 10 months
    • Have limited rights; they cannot leave their jobs or switch employers, and critics say it leaves them vulnerable to abuse or mistreatment.


Migrant Workers

  • 42% of farm workers are considered “migrant workers” defined by traveling at least 75 miles during a 12 month period for work
    • 35% of migrant workers travel back and forth from a foreign country
    • Almost six out of ten farmworkers live apart from their immediate family members.
    • Farm worker immigration to the United States has increased notably since the 1994 signing of NAFTA, a free trade agreement that has driven over two million Mexican farmers out of business.


Farm Worker Rights

  • Farmworkers were excluded from nearly all of the major federal labor laws passed in the 1930s. Some of the laws have been amended to include workers on large farms, but exemptions remain in the following laws:
    • Labor organizing
      • Farmworkers were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which protects workers acting collectively to form unions.
    • Minimum wage
      • The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) originally excluded all farmworkers, and was amended in 1978 to mandate minimum wage for workers on large farms only.
    • Overtime pay
      • The FLSA has never been amended to provide overtime for farmworkers, and only a few states have passed laws requiring it.
    • Child labor laws
      • The FLSA sets 12 as the minimum age for farm work, not 16 as in other jobs.


Farm Worker Health

  • Dangerous work:
    • Agriculture is consistently ranked as one of the three most dangerous occupations in the United States.
  • Abuse
    • Farmworkers face a lot of harassment, sexual abuse and rape, often with little recourse due to their status or poverty
  • Pesticide risks:
    • Farmworkers suffer from the highest rate of toxic chemical injuries and skin disorders of any workers in the country, as well as significant rates of eye injuries
  • Health concerns:
    • Farmworkers face higher incidences than other wage-earners of heat stress, dermatitis, urinary tract infections, parasitic infections, and tuberculosis.
  • Poor health of children:
    • Children of migrant farmworkers have higher rates of pesticide exposure, malnutrition and dental disease than the general population. Children of migrant farmworkers are also less likely to be fully immunized than other children.
  • Life expectancy
    • The average life expectancy of migrant and seasonal farm workers is 49 years of age, in comparison to the U.S. average of 75 years of age
  • Housing effects:
    • Poor migrant housing conditions lead to increased prevalence of lead poisoning, respiratory illnesses, ear infections and diarrhea.
  • Limited insurance:
    • Only ten percent of farmworkers report having employer-provided health insurance.


Obstacles to Health Care

  • Lack of transportation
  • Limited hours of clinic service
  • Cost of health care
  • Limited or no interpreter service
  • Frequent relocation in search of farm work
  • Farmworkers are not protected by sick leave and risk losing their jobs if they miss work
  • Fear of deportation



SAF: United States Farmworker Factsheet

US Department of Labor: The National Agricultural Workers Survey

Farmworker Justice: Selected Statistics on Farmworkers



The Dangers of Trump’s Attacks on Migrant Workers

President Trump ran on a platform that attacked illegal immigrants and multiculturalism.  Since becoming president he has drastically increased ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents and has expanded the scope of ICE beyond illegal immigrants convicted of crimes and is now targeting and deporting anyone who is an undocumented immigrant.  This is a huge threat to the US farm system, which relies more than half of its labor that provides the majority of US food, on undocumented workers, due to the low wages and hard working conditions of farm workers.   This is causing undocumented workers to fear going to the hospital or sending their children to school.

In addition to targeting undocumented workers, Trump’s rhetoric is fueling an anti-immigrant movement that is threatening and growing hate towards documented immigrant farm workers, who make up a quarter of US farm workers.



Farm Worker Rights Certification Programs

Fair Food Program (CIW)


  • The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) Fair Food Program is a unique partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions for the workers who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms.
  • It harnesses the power of consumer demand to give farmworkers a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, and to eliminate the longstanding abuses that have plagued agriculture for generations.

Fair Trade Certified


  • Fair Trade Certified products have social, environmental and economic standards to promote safe, healthy working conditions, protect the environment, enable transparency, and empower communities to build strong, thriving businesses.
  • Fair Trade Certified products have a Fairtrade Premium which is an additional sum of money which goes into a communal fund for workers and farmers to use to invest back into their community on things like education, healthcare, sustainable practices, improving their business or building vital infrastructure such as roads and bridges for their community.


Fair for Life


  • In response to limited certification options for fair trade an independent certification program was created in 2005 to assess fair trade producers and operators
  • Uses a criteria that includes no forced labour, freedom of association, no illegal form of child labour (ILO conventions), equal opportunities and treatment, adequate health and safety systems, fair salaries and working conditions, activities which observe environmental protection (water conservation, management of ecosystems, energy and waste materials), fair trade-compliant relations throughout the production chain.


Food Justice Certified


  • The Food Justice Certified label is based on high-bar social justice standards for farms, processors and retailers, including every link in the food chain from seed to table.
  • These standards address collective bargaining for farmworkers, fair pricing for farmers, land rights for indigenous peoples and other issues pivotal to achieving parity in our food system.


Equitable Food Initiative


The Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) brings together workers, growers and retailers in the effort to produce better fruits and vegetables. As produce farms comply with the EFI Standard—for improved working conditions, pesticide management, and food safety—the entire food system sees benefits, all the way from farm workers to consumers

Good Food Purchasing Program


  • Although not a certification program the Good Food Purchasing Program connects public institutions with many food certification programs to create a transparent and equitable food system built on five core values: local economies, health, valued workforce, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability.
  • The Center for Good Food Purchasing provides a comprehensive set of tools, technical support, and verification system to assist institutions in meeting their Program goals and commitments.


The United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) is the national grassroots membership organization for worker cooperatives with the mission to build develop worker own cooperatives that support fair and just jobs.



Significant Farmworker Rights Campaigns


United Farm Worker (UFW)


UFW was created in 1966 when two farm worker rights organizations, one of which was lead by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, united into a union in support of grape Latino and Filipino farmworker strikes and boycotts in Delano, Californa in 1965, protesting years of poor pay and conditions.  The UFA was officially accepted into the AFL-CIO in 1972.  The Delano Grape Strike and Boycott lasted until 1970 when Table grape growers signed their first union contracts, granting workers better pay, benefits, and protections.


The Ban of the Short Hoe, “El Cortito”

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Before 1975 California growers forced its migrant workers to use a short handle called  “El Cortito” or the “Short One” which was only 12-18 inches long.  A regular hoe is long enough to allow a worker to stand up and comfortably use it. Short hoes cause farm workers to spend most of the long days (often 10-12 hours a day) bent over, causing horrible and often permanent back injuries.  The farm managers claimed this tool ensured careful weeding, but every other state agreed this tool was not necessary for careful weeding and cruel.  Many believed this was more about control and subjugation of the workers.  The majority of California farm workers were migrant workers and it didn’t matter to management if they worked them so hard that they couldn’t work longterm since due to injuries because there was so many other migrant workers to take their place.  After decades of protests the combination of the California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) winning a California supreme court case on safety and Ronald Regan not seeking re-election allowed California to banned the short hoe in 1975


Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) Fair Food Program


The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIM)– which began in 1993 as a coalition of Florida tomato farm-workers, organized around the fight to end modern-day slavery conditions. Built on the foundations of social responsibility, the CIW strives to end work-related, gender-based, violence; human trafficking; and slavery.

In 2001 the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), launched a series of boycotts of major food retailers to signed on to the Fair Food Program agreement to improve farm conditions for Florida farm workers.  The following companies signed onto the Fair Food Program:

  • 2015 – Ahold
  • 2015 – The Fresh Market
  • 2014 – Walmart
  • 2012 – Chipotle Mexican Grill
  • 2012 – Trader Joe’s
  • 2010 – Sodexo
  • 2010 – Aramark
  • 2009 – Compass Group
  • 2009 – Bon Appétit Management Company
  • 2008 – Subway
  • 2008 – Whole Foods Market
  • 2008 – Burger King
  • 2007 – McDonalds
  • 2005 – Yum! Brands (Taco Bell)


Driscoll/Sakuma Brothers Farms Boycott

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Sakuma Brothers Farms, a producer for Driscoll Berries, refused to give 450 berry pickers a wage increase and to improve conditions in the labor camps.  In 2013 the berry workers began a national boycott against Sakuma and later Driscoll.  In 2016 Sakuma gave into the demands and allowed the farm workers to organize the first new farm-worker union in the United States in a quarter century called “Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ)”.  In 2017 FUJ was able to negotiate better wages ($15 an hour) and better living conditions.


Migrant Justice: Milk with Dignity

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Since 2010 Migrant Justice has been documenting worker abuses, among the approximately 1500 migrant workers operating Vermont Dairy Farms.  These abuses range from low wages, wage theft, no worker protections, long hours without overtime pay and unsafe work environments.  Many of these dairies supply milk for Ben & Jerry’s Icecream. In 2014 Migrant Justice launched theMilk with Dignity Code of Conduct campaign which attempted to get Vermont Dairy Farms to sign on to an agreement that includes the following:

* Farmworker-Authored Code of Conduct: farmworkers’ definition of the human right to work with dignity and fair housing;

* Farmworker Education: Guarantees workers’ the right to receive education about their rights under the Code of Conduct;

* Third Party Monitoring Body: Monitors, enforces and audits farmer compliance with Code of Conduct; receives worker complaints and addresses grievances; creates improvement plans to address violations; enforces consequences for non-compliance

* Economic relief: Participating corporations restore economic justice in the supply chain paying an extra premiumdirectly to both farmworkers AND farmers

* Legally-binding Agreements: Participating Corporations (Ben & Jerry’s) sign a legally binding agreement that defines the program as an enforceable contract under the law

In June 2015 Ben and Jerry’s agreed to work together to implement the Milk with Dignity Program in the Ben & Jerry’s Supply Chain but to this day has still not officially signed any contract or made any changes to their supply chain.

Organizations to Follow For Farm Worker Campaign Updates

National Economic And Social Rights Issue