The well-being of migrant workers is intrinsically linked to justice in the food system. Many people come to the United States to earn a living wage in the farm industry. There are also many of these people that struggle to put food on the table for themselves and their families.
Over a quarter of global farm work is done by migrant workers with half of the entire global workforce employed in the agriculture sector. The vast majority of farmworkers in the U.S. are immigrants, and most of them hold no work authorization.
Although 85% of crop workers are not considered migrants and work within 75 miles of their settled home, this doesn’t account for the undocumented hires. This does mean that fewer migrant workers travel from state to state in search of the next crop to make the most money. However, working conditions aren’t always optimal. The relationship between migrants finding work and how the food industry is run is symbiotic — the global increase in demand affects this search for work and how the employees are treated, and vice versa.
Globalization of Food Systems
Globalization of food supply chains has benefitted food production companies in several ways, including increasing efficiency, crop yields, and agricultural technology shared across borders. Other benefits of globalization of food systems include:
- Decreased poverty;
- Increased food availability;
- Less global famine;
- The ability for nations to aid others.
While this shift to a worldwide food system has positive effects on the economy and interconnectedness, it’s important to consider the lasting effects it can have on the workforce and the public at large.
Food Industry Working Conditions
After all, the workers keep the food industry going. With increased demand comes increased production. In general, technology and human resources have kept up with demands and opened up more job opportunities for migrant workers. However, the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations predicted in 2009 that the demand for the production of food would increase by 60% by the year 2050.
The rapid expansion of global food systems means that they will have to keep up the pace or face dire consequences. In theory, increased revenue from food production would allow countries to better serve their food industry workers, but this isn’t always the case.
Overworked and Underpaid
In 2020, the average farmworker wage was $14.62 per hour. This is almost 60% less than other workers outside of the agriculture industry. With the increase in demand for food production, migrant farmworkers are often asked to work long hours. This may be beneficial for a higher paycheck, but it is more grueling and can lead to serious issues down the line.
Farmworkers clocking long hours are also extending the amount of time spent in physically demanding situations. Agriculture is also considered one of the most hazardous work environments, which means laborers are exposed to these dangerous conditions for longer periods.
The agriculture industry is the biggest offender of federal labor standard violations. Farms evaluated by the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor accounted for about one-fourth of all of the wage and hour violations in the country. There were a few outliers that owed back wages to employees for overworked hours, but these are far from the only cases. In fact, there’s only a 1.1% chance that farms in the U.S. will be audited for overworking employees.
This disregard for employee well-being can have several health implications — for the workforce and the public at large. Working long hours decreases productivity and increases the chances of mistakes being made. This is apparent in the food industry, as countries receiving larger amounts of imported food supplies are more susceptible to foodborne illnesses.
The increased volume of imported food leads to overworked employees and overuse of resources such as land and equipment, leading to more unsanitary practices and less regulation just to meet demands. This increased use of land for farming, including fish farms, exposes employees and the public to hazards, as well. Hazardous farming chemicals, like fertilizers, diesel fumes, and water contaminants, are released into the environment from mass production.
In addition to long-term exposure, employees are also more prone to bodily harm, causing at least 120,000 claims of injury annually. The repetitive maneuvers involved in farm work, such as leaning over to pick fruit, are also often unergonomic. Poor posture can lead to chronic pain down the line. Farmworkers may also not have the time or resources to seek medical help for any illnesses they incur.
Fewer Benefits and Protections
Migrant agricultural workers are offered far less in terms of benefits and protections from their employers. This includes little to no sick leave, health insurance, unemployment pay, or family benefits. Immigrant workers that are authorized and unauthorized to work in the United States deal with lower levels of protection from their employers. This extends to less protection from mistreatment in the workplace.
Prejudices and Mistreatment
Tensions are high in the agriculture industry when trying to produce mass amounts of food. With the food industry in the U.S. predominantly made up of Hispanic migrant workers, these people are subject to unfair treatment in the workplace and out in their daily lives.
Prejudices occur from the public when faced with political unrest and propaganda in the news regarding migrant workers. Perhaps more notably, however, the workers’ own bosses are committing prejudices against their employees. Migrant workers that have learned more advanced English and stayed in the U.S. longer start to recognize more and more major injustices in their jobs.
Latino farmworkers cite not only fewer protections from their employer but also verbal and physical injustices. Migrant workers in Thailand were ridiculed and unjustly blamed for bringing the COVID-19 virus to the country. Even though the food industry is booming, the means by which the food is being produced is, at times, unethical and unfair to those who make it possible.
Advancing Global Food Systems and Human Compassion
It is possible to simultaneously ramp up food production and compassion for food industry workers. There isn’t an overnight fix, and there will be speedbumps along the way and outliers that continue the bad practices outlined above. However, there are strides being taken.
Advances in agriculture tech are transforming the industry. AI and the Internet of Things for farming allow management to delegate more mundane, physically demanding tasks to machines. This frees up time and resources to help migrant farmworkers get back on track, making more money in less time spent on the job. It also opens up the opportunity for higher-paying positions for those workers who choose to learn IT support for this new technology.
Tech skills are going to be increasingly valuable as farming production advances — but so will interpersonal skills. Having a bit of human compassion will be crucial to not burning out migrant workers and giving them the treatment they deserve in the workplace. Amidst inflation, climate change, pandemic effects, and the rising costs of food, there is a probable global food crisis on the horizon. Integrating this tech and increased care for migrant worker needs is crucial to keeping up with productivity demands and staying afloat in these uncertain times.
[Mark Stebnicki / Pexels]
*Ainsley Lawrence is a freelance writer who lives in the Northwest region of the United States. She has a particular interest in covering topics related to politics, social justice, and workplace issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.