Farmworkers in the Food System
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
The American food industry, and farmworkers in particular, is very much affected by the social and political issues that plague all other American institutions. In fact, the farming industry is closely related to a recent widely-reported political event: President Trump's "state of emergency" declaration. Trump requested 8 billion dollars to build the wall, in order to cleanse and "protect" the country from illegal immigrants (Sonne). The president's construction project and countless racist, dehumanizing remarks about undocumented immigrant workers embody the injustice that farmworkers consistently face in the food industry. Coming from a Latino background (I am a first-generation American with Brazilian born-and-raised parents), I think of the stark differences between my parent's immigration to the United States, and those of undocumented farmworkers. It is appalling how by having a work visa and higher education, my parents’ human rights were able to remain intact, while the rights of the farmworkers - whose work is essential to our country - are violently stripped away.
Despite the fact that almost all of the food in American households is farmed by the hands of these immigrant workers, 60-75% of farmworkers are undocumented immigrants (Working in Fear 1). Given how these farmworkers are portrayed by the media and by our current government, their mistreatment is being pushed far from headlines and the public eye, which buries fieldworkers' struggles deeper and deeper. In other words, they are facing inhumane treatment every single day without public knowledge.
Among the major infringements on farmworkers' human rights are sexual harassment, lack of breaks, lack of proper medical care, pesticide exposure, racial discrimination, wage theft, unequal pay, undocumentation discrimination, and retaliation (Ramirez). While these struggles are not unique to them, as they happen across many work sectors, farmworkers face a disproportionate amount of these inequalities, because they are unable to form unions or enjoy the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which obligates workers to receive minimum wage and overtime pay (Ramirez). The issue is exacerbated for those who are undocumented. Even if they had these protections, they would not be able to fully utilize them or even know of their existence, since many often speak little English and have little knowledge of this foreign American judicial system, and do not have the resources to access it. Undocumented immigrants are also prohibited from most federal programs put in place to help the poor, like food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid, and Medicare. They also fear or are unable to use the benefits that they do have access to, like emergency medical care (Injustice on our Plates 8). By excluding them from basic worker’s rights, and denying them access to federal programs, the federal immigration system has created a stagnant imbalance of power between immigrant workers and their employers and other superiors.
Looking further into the authority issues in the food industry, this power imbalance is present not only between workers and their employers, but also between male and females in this workplace. As many as 90% of female farmworkers suffer daily from sexual harassment and gender discrimination in their work environment. It is estimated that overall, fieldworkers earn only $15,000 annually. However, when this data is disaggregated by gender, women only earn $11,000 for the same exact work (Ramirez). This fact is not widely known, because data on farmworker pay is rarely collected in this stratified way: immigrant women are not considered economic immigrants and are often thought to only have immigrated for familial reasons. In effect, their stories of discrimination are often forgotten and rarely receive the attention that they deserve.
The laborious tasks that these women perform not only are physically abusive, but often lead to sexual abuse. Due to the remote areas where the women work, they prove an ideal location for sexual abuse, and their crouched positions while collecting crops leave them even more vulnerable (Working in Fear 2). Sadly, these women are not in a position to obtain legal defense from these obviously criminal acts. They are not all protected by the anti-sexual harassment laws in our country, as many of them are undocumented. Still, even if they were protected, many of them suffer retaliation from their perpetrators or are closely related to their abusers, which hinders them from speaking out (Ramirez). Without access to legal help, or the ability to feel safe in coming forward, they turn to unconventional methods in order to protect themselves. They use clothes (bandanas, for example) to cover their faces in an effort to look like men and shield themselves from unwanted sexual attention. This is by no means effective and shows the desperation that these women face just to make a living.
Of the 80% of women who are estimated to be sexually abused, 59% of them do not speak up (Working in Fear 2). But some women have recently launched a movement to demand their rights. They are motivated not for their own salvation or justice for themselves, but for the hope that their stories will save others from the suffering that they endured for years. In 2005, Olivia Tamayo was the first farmworker to have her case favorably decided by a federal jury. Despite retaliation from her perpetrator, she exercised her legal rights and was put in touch with lawyers, bringing her case to be heard by a federal jury which ruled in her defense (Ramirez). Since then, there have been more and more women who feel powerful enough and safe enough to come forward. As these events have gained more publicity, these victims know that there will be resources and support if they come forward with their truths.
Still, this is not enough. This issue does not get nearly as much attention as other workplace sexual harassment issues- namely, those faced by white, middle-class women. Farmworkers are are mainly invisible to the public eye, and certainly to our president. It is necessary to remember the weight and value that these immigrants hold in this country, and the human rights to which they are entitled. We, as consumers, have the power to protect these workers and help them gain their rights. We have benefited from their exploitation, making us morally indebted in protecting their rights. We must increase our efforts to publicize the harassment and inequalities in the farmworkers' workplace. We must use our purchasing power to purchase food produced under just conditions and to ensure that fair food production becomes the norm. We must plant the seed of justice in the minds of consumers, and remind ourselves that there is human labor and suffering behind every food product made under unjust conditions. We must encourage voting for just food production and support legislators with the same views. Consumers have the ability to influence issues that they might not even be aware of. If consumers only purchase foods that are locally grown or proven to be grown in just conditions, we can boycott products made at the cost of human suffering. Creating a just and sustainable food system requires granting protection to the workers that cultivate our food supply. They are the backbone of our food system, so we must give them humane and fair protection.
Ramirez, Monica. "Seeding Justice: Monica Ramirez." Food Literacy for All Seminar. Angell Hall, Ann Arbor. January 22, 2019. Lecture
“Injustice On Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the Food Industry.” Southern Poverty Law Center, 2010, www.splcenter.org/20101107/injustice-our-plates.
Kominers, Sara. "Working in Fear: Sexual Violence Against Women Farmworkers in the United States: A Literature Review." OXFAM America.
Sonne, Paul. “Trump Looks to Raid Pentagon Budget for Wall Money Using Emergency Powers.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 15 Feb. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/trump-looks-to-raid-pentagon-budget-for-wall-money-using-emergency-powers/2019/02/15/cd0fcdb8-3149-11e9-ac6c-14eea99d5e24_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f462472bcc5b.