The average life expectancy of a migrant farm worker working in the United States is 49 years.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, agricultural laborer is one of the top ten most dangerous jobs in the country. More farm workers died from work-related injuries in 2009 than truck drivers, construction workers, or industrial machinists.
Infant mortality among families of farm workers is 125% higher than that of the general U.S. population. Higher rates of breast cancer, prostate cancer, miscarriage and Parkinson’s disease have been found in farm workers worldwide.
Most of the people who grow and harvest the food most Americans buy at the supermarket work long hours with few breaks, performing repetitive manual labor, toiling in every kind of weather, often enduring heavy rains or dangerous heat for days at a time, with no paid holidays or sick days. Laborers on large-scale industrial farms work with heavy machinery, and may be repeatedly exposed to toxic pesticides known to cause birth defects and cancer.
And for all they do, and all they risk, to provide those of us who do not farm with food, most migrant farm workers — those who travel the country to help harvest crops as they ripen — are paid less than $12,000 a year.
About three quarters of migrant agricultural workers are immigrants to the United States; about half of those work legally under established guest worker laws. Most migrant farm workers have not completed a high school education, and a number of them, as immigrants, speak English as a second language and are not familiar with the U.S. legal system.
As a consequence, many farm workers are unaware of workers’ rights under U.S. law to promptly paid wages, regular breaks, and a reasonably safe work environment. This lack of knowledge allows many large corporate farms to exploit even those migrant workers who are in the U.S. legally, insisting they work long hours, under unsafe conditions, and without overtime or hazard pay.
Poor conditions and low wages at corporate farms are not necessary evils; corporations do not have to exploit workers to provide the United States with abundant, affordable food. According to Phillip Martin, Professor of Agricultural Economics at UC-Davis, less than 10% of the final retail price you pay for supermarket strawberries or apples goes to farm worker wages. The lion’s share of the retail price of fresh produce from corporate farms goes to corporate profit.
Because migrant workers’ wages make up such a small percentage of the cost of produce, a wage increase of 40% for farm workers across the nation would only cost the average American household $16 more per year at the grocery store.
This Labor Day, if you happen to be one of those lucky workers celebrating a day off of work with a nice, American-grown meal, please take a moment to think of the farm laborers who harvest so much of the food Americans eat without ever stopping for a holiday. And then pledge to take action to help them, by seeking out responsibly grown and harvested produce from farms that welcome unions and treat workers well, and by supporting legislation that provides farm workers with safer conditions and better pay.
Photo, Farm Workers and Mt. Williamson, by Ansel Adams. Public domain.
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