Why Agricultural Workers are STILL Being Underpaid

Author: CAMILA RIOS MOLINA

Gianna Nino, a graduate student at Stanford University, faced job insecurity alongside millions of Americans during the pandemic. She decided to follow in her family’s footsteps and pick fruits at a Bay Area farm. In a viral tweet reaching a quarter-million people, she wrote, “I’m about to finish up my time in the fields and wanted everyone to know that we farmworkers are paid $7 for two gallons of blueberries. How much do you pay for your blueberries?”

Agricultural workers are among the most vital in this nation. Their work fuels and maintains the nation’s food supply, allowing Americans to enjoy fruits and vegetables year-round. Despite their economic contributions and being first-line workers during a pandemic, they remain the lowest paid and least protected. 

How did we end up in a place where workers who have been a part of the backbone of the american workforce long before the pandemic, are still unable to make a decent living? Unpacking this question and figuring out where we go from here requires a deep dive into the social and economic dimensions of agricultural workers and agricultural exceptionalism.

Introducing Temporary Work Programs

During World War I and II, temporary worker programs were established to draw in seasonal staff. In 1952, lawmakers revised these programs and incorporated them into the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Temporary worker programs were introduced as H2-A and H2-B, to name a few, and went into effect in 1992. Today, in order to be eligible for a temporary worker visa, a petitioner– an employer–needs to demonstrate that there are not enough U.S. citizens who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work. However, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS) study, approximately half of the hired agricultural workers “lack legal immigration status.”

In 2012, Alejandro Jimenez, an H2-B worker, filed a lawsuit on behalf of 210 other H2-B workers against Wisconsin-based GLK Foods. The plaintiff’s claims stated that GLK failed to disclose employment terms, alleging a failure to employ workers for the promised term of employment, failing to pay the same workers a prevailing wage, and failing to provide return transportation to their homes in Mexico. This is one of several cases where justice was sought after by agricultural workers arguing their rights were violated through temporary work programs.

Agricultural Exceptionalism

Agricultural exceptionalism is defined as the “exclusion of agricultural workers from most major worker protection laws in the country,” according to Public Health professor, Ans Irfan, with multiple advocacy groups describing the term as an act of structural oppression. During the 1930s, agricultural exceptionalism became a popular term after federal labor regulations, including the minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor restrictions,  excluded agricultural workers from each statute. Agricultural workers were one of two excluded worker groups, the other being government workers. 

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent agency that focuses on the oversight and enforcement of the NLRA of 1935, allows employees to form unions to negotiate with employers over various work-related grievances. While agricultural workers are not included in the NLRA, since they do not fall under the definition of “employee,” it does not prohibit them from forming unions. Even if workers formed unions, their claims would not be reviewed by outside agencies causing them to be vulnerable to unregulated working conditions.

Although it is still a clear uphill battle, a series of policies have been put into place in recent years to protect agricultural workers. To learn more, visit Congress.gov and use the bill tracker.

Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, argues that the erosion of the bargaining power that U.S. workers had concerns politics and institutions according to The Guardian. He explains that the “free market,” or any market, cannot exist without people creating it; that is, the market depends on “rules, legislatures, executive agencies, and courts.” Research suggests that strong unions, for which strong bargaining power can be a factor, have set industry standards for wages and benefits that help both union and non-union workers. Union advocates such as Reich liken the health of unions to the health of American democracy.

The Right to Unionize

Labor Day was intended to be a celebration of working people in America. Over time, the origins of Labor Day have been widely forgotten. For some, the 3-day weekend means the beginning of the school year, relaxation, and for some, it’s just another day at work. Labor Day came about at a time when manufacturing workers worked an average of 70 hours per week, had limited days off, and worked in an unsanitary and unsafe work environment. The focus was on shortening the workday to eight hours, getting more days off, and reducing the workweek to six days. As the nation went through a period of transition, many workers needed a way to voice their grievances, prompting the start of unions.

Labor unions play a role as intermediaries to ensure that workers receive fair wages and working conditions. Workers exercise their rights through unions. Unions set the standard for workers’ quality of life, a practice that has become seen as a necessity by many, especially when  discussing how to preserve the dignity of working class families so that they are happier and more productive in their fields and so that they continue to seek work in the fields that keep our country running.  When discussing policies around labor CATO, a public policy think tank, stresses the importance of thinking about good working conditions and income along with workers wanting to be needed while doing work that is valued or useful. The think tank argues that only when thinking about these things together will we be able to truly honor the dignity of the working class and the dignity that comes from being able to provide for your family. In this case, without agricultural work, Americans would face staggering rates of food insecurity – even more than some communities have already experienced.

Those same people who spend their days picking fruits and vegetables struggle to find food for their own families as documented by the National Library of Medicine. A 2011 study of Georgia agricultural workers revealed that 63% of migrant and seasonal (H2-A) workers polled struggled to feed both themselves and their families, similarly, a 2016 study of United States agricultural workers found that migrant and unauthorized workers were more likely to have family incomes below the federal poverty level, leaving them at risk of being food insecure. 

Long-term Change – Contributing to the Solution

Economists working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a study comparing the legal status and incentives to work in agriculture. The study found reports of labor shortages, rising competing farm wages, and increased employment of non-immigrants through the H2-A program. The research focuses on agricultural worker time allocations from 1994 to 2012. Workers “with flexible employment options” were found to have “less interest in agriculture.” The data was compared with time allocations for U.S. citizens, Green Card holders, and undocumented workers. The research showed that undocumented agricultural workers tended to devote most of their workweek to agricultural work, while Green Card holders spent the least amount of time in agriculture.

These economists argued that if the current agricultural labor force is not “replenished” by those who are genuinely interested in doing agricultural work, labor shortages will continue to increase, and the average age will also increase. It would suggest that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on jobs’ incentive and competitiveness to attract more workers and substantively change the workforce effectively. While these economists argue that the agricultural industry needs to attract more Americans to work, if the goal is to provide incentives through wage increases and improved working conditions, this could benefit all workers equally. 

A second possible solution is through policymaking. In 2013, Oklahoma Representative Franklin D. Lucas introduced the Agricultural Act of 2014 (H.R. 2642). The bill included efforts to attract a diverse group of agricultural workers, from expanding competitive grant programs at national agricultural colleges for minority youth to expanding grants for international agrarian programs to authorizing agricultural research at U.S. universities. 

A last possible solution involves activism. Some advocacy groups have boycotted restaurant chains to raise awareness of farm wages and make a connection with certain ingredients used in their food. In 2005, after four years of mobilization, Florida tomato workers set a strong precedent for subsequent union organizing by winning a boycott campaign against Taco Bell. The campaign called on Taco Bell to take responsibility for human rights violations in its supply chain. Workers’ wages were increased by 75 percent. 

While engaging in the community is an effective way to bring about change, change can be directed from different fronts. Individual self-reflection can be an effective way to start by becoming aware of the food we buy and eat, as demanding corporate responsibility for ethical procurement practices are ways to support agricultural workers, a group that even amid a pandemic, are still making it possible for the food supply chain to remain intact.

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