April 1, 2014

Hard work, low pay, poor conditions: Ag jobs and the immigrants willing to do them

Sarah Rodman, MPH

Sarah Rodman, MPH

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

Transplanting celery, Tulelake, Calif., 1942 / LOC

Transplanting celery, Tulelake, Calif., 1942 / LOC

Agriculture is one of the most hazardous industries in the U.S. Workers across the food system face threats to their health, including serious injury and exposure to a whole host of job-related substances like gases, particulate matter, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, arsenic, novel flu viruses, and pesticides. And then there are the high rates of sexual assault among female farmworkers, lack of access to water and toilets, wage theft…. The list goes on.

Recently, Bob Lawrence, director of the Center for a Livable Future, wrote a letter to President Obama and four policymakers to express concerns about health threats to workers in factory farms. In his letter, Dr. Lawrence reminds his readers that the majority of workers in agriculture are not citizens. He emphasizes the widely acknowledged dependence on these workers in the agriculture industry. And he asks that future debates around immigration reform acknowledge the critical threats to the health of these crucial workers. Recent blogposts by Bob Martin further explain these issues.

A quick look back at history shows us that the agriculture industry’s stake in U.S. immigration reform is long-standing. Agriculture work has long been performed in deplorable conditions by people who lack resources or the right to vote. Slaves and sharecroppers are obvious early examples. As agriculture became more productive and specialized, the demand for more seasonal labor grew as well. Over time, immigrants replaced nearly all American-born farmworkers, who mostly abandoned agriculture’s poor pay and working conditions for nonfarm jobs. [1] Chinese immigrants, Japanese immigrants, and Italian and German prisoners of war have all had eras as farmworkers. Currently, farmworkers in the U.S. are mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America.[2]

Immigrants in agriculture are hired illegally and under various guest worker programs. [1, 3] Hiring non-citizens in agriculture is facilitated by U.S. immigration policy.

Guest worker programs allow foreigners to temporarily work and live in the U.S. while performing approved types of work. Various guest worker programs have been created for the U.S. agriculture industry. Despite evidence that there is no shortage of available labor and despite concerns about wages, labor standards and allowing so many foreigners into the country, policymakers from agricultural regions manage to get these programs into law.[4]

In each of these programs, there have been widespread complaints that workers were mistreated or underpaid. When these complaints are lodged officially, employers have sometimes only received a warning from the government.[4] One major guest worker program (the Bracero program) was dismantled in the 1964 amid heavy evidence of human rights abuses.[2] The current guestworker program (H-2A) has seen some of the most notable cases of human trafficking in recent history.[5] Charles Rangel (D–NY), former Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has said that the current U.S. guest worker program is “the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.”[6] Today, the H-2A guest worker program is still the program under which farmworkers are legally brought to the US for temporary employment.

Some growers have long preferred hiring undocumented workers so that they would not have to comply with the conditions of the guest worker programs.[1] This preference is obvious by the number of farmworkers that are undocumented.

U.S. immigration policy has been forgiving of growers who hire illegally. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986  (IRCA) made the H-2A guest worker program less demanding on employers by reducing what they were required to provide to farmworkers.[1] It also created the Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) program, a legalization program for unauthorized farmworkers.[1] Under the SAW program, nearly 1.3 million farmworkers who claimed to have worked more than 90 days between 1985 and1986 became authorized workers in the U.S. This program gave workers a path to citizenship, but it also protected farmworker employers from IRCA’s goal of criminalizing the hiring of undocumented workers.[1]

For years, agriculture has been crying labor shortage while the rest of the country is crying unemployment. But these two pieces have not come together as one solution. In times where unemployment statistics are in the daily news, why the demand for immigrants to do these jobs? Americans simply will not endure the backbreaking work, low pay, and poor conditions. United Farm Workers made this clear with their “Take Our Jobs” campaign that challenges American citizens to take over for them in the fields. If Americans did so, the agriculture sector might be forced to change the way it treats its workers…

Employers have historically used immigration status to thwart farmworkers’ attempts to organize and advocate. Collective organizing has historically been a tool to win workers better conditions and higher pay. But there are several challenges to organizing undocumented workers, many of which stem from these workers’ lack of citizenship status. Organizing drives have been broken when employers threaten to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service.[7] Undocumented workers are less likely to unionize than documented workers.[7] And among undocumented workers, the most recent immigrants to the U.S. are the least likely to organize.[8] One reason for this is that undocumented workers have less understanding of their rights and protections as laborers.[9] Literacy and language barriers can hamper understanding of verbal communication and distributed written materials when unions are trying to organize workers.[10] Furthermore, the fact that many farmworkers engage in temporary work and work that constantly relocates them makes this population of laborers hard to unionize.[9]*

Threats to health, unlivable wages, difficult working conditions—these are the reasons these jobs are rarely done by U.S. citizens.  And this is why agriculture has a stake in immigration reform. A steady supply of undocumented and guest workers keeps Ag from having to completely overhaul working conditions throughout the food system. This would be a difficult task for some employers, particularly small-scale farmers with narrow margins to pay people more than they already do.

Alabama is a good lesson. After the State passed its “self-deportation” laws in 2011, the intended and actual result was fleeing of thousands of immigrants from the state. And less intended— fields with rotting crops and no one to pick them. (11)

*It is important to pay tribute here to the notable success of organized workers in agriculture, such as the United Farmworkers and Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who have despite difficult odds achieved some improvements in working conditions throughout the food chain.

Photo: Library of Congress

<< Sarah Rodman’s previous post on immigration – Despite Chavez, U.S. still falls short in protecting farmworkers

  1. Martin PL. Promise Unfulfilled: Unions, Immigrant, & the Farm Workers. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; 2003.
  2. Southern Poverty Law Center. Close to Slavery: Guest Worker Programs in the US. 2013.
  3. National Center for Farmworker Health. About America’s Farmworkers [Internet]. [cited 2013 Jul 24]. Available from: http://www.ncfh.org/?pid=4&page=2
  4. Ngai MM. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 2004.
  5. Preston J. Indictment Accuses Firm of Exploiting Thai Workers. New York Times [Internet]. 2010 Sep 3 [cited 2013 Aug 1]; Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/04/us/04trafficking.html
  6. CNN. Lou Dobbs Tonight. CNN; 2007.
  7. Haus L. Unions, Immigration, and Internationalization: New Challenges and Changing Coalitions in the United States and France. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan; 2002.
  8. Moody K. US Labor in Trouble and Transition. New York, NY: Verso; 2007.
  9. Delgado H. New Immigrants, Old Unions: Organizing Undocumented Workers in Los Angeles. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press; 1993.
  10. Center for Immigration Studies. Immigration Raids at Smithfield: How an ICE Enforcement Action Boosted Union Organizing and the Employment of American Workers [Internet]. 2009 [cited 2012 Mar 5]. Available from: http://cis.org/SmithfieldImmigrationRaid-Unionization
  11. Cohen JR. The Impact of Alabama’s Extreme HB56 Law. Huffington Post. 2011 Nov 4;
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