Farm work is hard, dangerous labor; hours in weather that can range from hot sun to freezing sleet, repetitive motion, verbal and physical abuse from supervisors, poor housing, low wages, and exposure to dangerous chemicals and equipment are all par for the course for people working on farms. Many of these individuals are underage or members of the undocumented community, and the industry is somewhat unique in the nation for the limited protections it offers to laborers. Agriculture receives exceptional treatment (thanks to extensive lobbying efforts), and it can create a situation ripe for abuse.
Since César Chávez, farmworkers have been fighting for dignity and fair treatment in the United States, and a resurgence in organizing has occurred in recent years, suggesting that the community may be at an important tipping point. Concerns about immigration have been a driving factor, but workers have also been encouraged by organizing in other sectors of the economy as well as increased awareness in the community at large about agricultural issues. Which means 2013 might just be the year when farmworkers get their due.
Immigration turned out to be an important touchpoint in the 2012 election, and it’s clear that US immigration policy is in desperate need of overhaul. In 2012, numerous states passed aggressive anti-immigrant laws as the US government cracked down on undocumented immigrants. One result was a shortage of farmworkers, which led the agriculture industry to complain vigorously as farmers were forced to let crops rot in the fields because they had no one to harvest them. Farmers need workers, and they’re pushing for a better immigration policy to ensure that they get them.
This might not necessarily benefit workers, though, depending on how it’s handled. Guest worker visas can still expose people to the risk of abuse, while a streamlining of the immigration system could allow people to work legally in the US, retain rights, and maintain their dignity. Because, as farmworkers stress, fixing the immigration issue still won’t resolve a lot of the problems faced by farmworkers, who need to be able to organize to protect themselves. It may be easier to fight for their rights when they don’t have to fear deportation, but farmworkers in 2013 would still be facing a hard battle, as many of the changes they want are opposed for economic reasons.
Raising pay for farmworkers, ensuring access to shade and water, renovating housing to bring it up to code, and other basic measures farmworkers and human rights advocates argue are critically necessary could get expensive, claim farmers and agriculture lobby organizations. These could drive up the price of food, in an era when people are already struggling to pay grocery bills. This creates a complex doublebind as farmworkers reach out for support and encounter opposition from people concerned about the costs associated with labor reforms in the agriculture industry.
Support from the general public could be critical as more people become aware of farmworker issues and start to consider getting involved in the fight. Thanks to a number of journalistic exposés in 2012 about dangers and abuses on farms, such as this piece about silo deaths and underage farmworkers, people are starting to think not just about where their food comes from, but who is involved in growing, harvesting, and processing. If leveraged, that awareness could turn into action.
One thing seems certain: 2013 could be the year in which farmworkers break through and secure more rights and protections in the workplace, or it could mark the aggressive suppression of farmworker rights campaigns. The secret to success may lie in meeting up with other labor organizers, like domestic workers, in the hopes of finding and exploring common causes.
Photo credit: Alexandria Jones for the National Farm Worker Ministry