Farmworker-Led Groups Push For Next Farm Bill to Include Worker Rights and Protections - Modern Farmer

Farmworker-Led Groups Push For Next Farm Bill to Include Worker Rights and Protections

The Farm Bill has historically excluded farmworker protections. Many hope this year will be different.

Migrant farmworkers harvest and box romaine lettuce in Salinas, California.
Photography by David A Litman/Shuttestock.

Luiz Jiménez, 39, has been working on American dairy farms for 20 years. He is used to working long hours for little pay, fearful of losing a vital source of income for his family. A father of three, Jiménez is originally from Oaxaca, Mexico and came to the United States undocumented. He is one of an estimated 238,000 undocumented agricultural workers in the US. Like many others, he is without a visa, credit or health insurance, making it difficult to safely advocate for better working conditions without putting his livelihood at risk. 

“They see us as workers that they can exploit, pay a lesser wage to, that they can replace with machines. But we are the people in the first line of this food chain, and we have to be recognized and respected as such,” says Jiménez.

In 2016, Jiménez started Alianza Agricola, an undocumented farmworker-led advocacy organization fighting for farmworker rights in western New York. In 2019, the group helped in the fight to pass the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act (FLFLPA), a law that grants various labor rights such as collective bargaining, day of rest and overtime pay to farmworkers in the state of New York. It was a huge win, but it’s just the beginning of what’s needed.

Jiménez is not alone in his experience. An estimated 21.5 million people work to grow, harvest, process, pack, transport and sell the food that feeds Americans. Many of them put their well-being at risk to do so. Although undocumented workers face an extra set of challenges, millions of food and farmworkers, regardless of immigration status, are exposed to unsafe working conditions and paid low wages. 

According to the Institute of Health, farmworkers are 35 times more likely to die of heat exposure. They are at risk for injury and illness from heavy machinery or pesticide exposure and in recent years have been disproportionately exposed to wildfire smoke and COVID-19. The vast majority of food and farmworkers are paid low wages, are ineligible for paid sick leave and are not entitled to overtime pay. Advocates say this year’s Farm Bill, a package of legislation passed every five years, presents an opportunity for some of these conditions to change, or at least improve.

The Farm Bill covers programs ranging from crop insurance to conservation incentives to nutrition assistance and more. It is incredibly influential, yet since its inception in 1933, the Farm Bill has failed to include protections for food and farmworkers. Labor rights are technically outside of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) jurisdiction and covered by the Department of Labor, but their exclusion still reflects how our food system treats its workers, explains Sophie Ackoff, the Farm Bill campaign director at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). 

“Our tax dollars, our programs, are focused on the success of farmers and agribusinesses. And those 21.5 million workers who are doing the bulk of not only the work but the danger of producing food for our country are not in any way protected by the USDA,” says Ackoff.

Jose Oliva, the campaigns director at the HEAL Food Alliance, says the exclusion of workers from the Farm Bill isn’t accidental but rather the result of an exploitative history of agricultural workers—the majority of whom were African American—when the first Farm Bill was written. The bill was written to support farm owners, not workers. Over time, this has turned into support for large agribusinesses, Oliva explains.

“It is essentially a way for the government to ensure that the average farmer is not the recipient of most of the benefits that are built into the farm bill,” he says.

UCS, HEAL Food Alliance and Alianza Agricola, along with other farmworker-led groups, have been advocating for various bills to be included in the upcoming Farm Bill, which was supposed to be renewed in September 2023 but was recently extended to the end of 2024.

Protecting America’s Meatpacking Worker Act

Data from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration has revealed that the meatpacking industry is one of the most dangerous jobs in the food system, recording a disproportionately high number of severe employee injuries. Oliva describes working conditions in the meatpacking industry as horrendous. “These are places where folks are and during the pandemic were forced to work even while everyone else was able to work from home or not work at all,” he says.

Nearly eight percent of all early COVID-19 cases and four percent of early COVID-19 deaths were connected to meatpacking plants. At the same time, the profit margins of the meatpacking industry have grown 300 percent since the start of the pandemic. This bill, introduced by Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Ro Khanna, would ensure safer line-processing speeds and stricter standards to protect meat and poultry workers from injury. 

Supporting our Farm and Food System Workforce and The Voice for Farm Workers Act 

Introduced by Sen. Alex Padilla, the Supporting our Farm and Food System Workforce and the Voice for Farm Workers Act would give food and farmworkers a dedicated voice within the USDA and strengthen their role and collaboration in decision-making processes. Despite being essential workers, Jiménez says agricultural workers are rarely heard by those in power. He hopes that is starting to change.

“I think it’s time the government put their eyes on who we are and what we’re doing,” says Jiménez.

Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act

The United States uses more than a billion pounds of pesticides annually, a third of which are currently banned in the European Union. Each year, pesticide exposure harms as many as 20,000 farmworkers, causing them to suffer more chemical-related injuries and illnesses than any other workforce nationwide. Extreme heat also makes pesticides evaporate faster, a major concern as temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, Ackoff explains. The Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act would ban the use of more than 100 toxic pesticides proven to harm both farmworkers and the environment.

Agricultural Worker Justice Act

Agricultural workers are some of the lowest paid workers in the country. In 2020, they earned on average $14.62 per hour, but in many states, the average pay is less than that. For undocumented workers, who make up approximately 50 percent of the farm labor workforce, the pay is even more precarious.

The Agricultural Worker Justice Act, introduced by Sen. Peter Welsch and Rep. Greg Caesar, would ensure that the USDA only purchases food from companies that pay their employees a living wage and would give the federal government tools to regulate and enforce safer working conditions for food and farmworkers.

Across the country, 80 percent of voters support better protections for food and farmworkers. There is immense opportunity to better support the backbone of our $1.053-trillion industry food and agricultural sector, says Ackoff. This year’s Farm Bill is funding-neutral, meaning no additional funding will be added, which could be challenging for the programs mentioned to get adequate funding. But Ackoff is hopeful the one-year extension will give more time to advocate for these changes to be made. Looking beyond 2024, advocates and farmworkers alike continue to fight for long-term change in the food system and to pass bills such as the Fairness for Farm Workers Act, which would update the nation’s 85-year labor laws to ensure farmworkers are paid fairer wages and overtime pay. 

“That would be the most transformative,” says Ackoff.

For Jiménez, the fight for fair working conditions and respect goes beyond himself. Despite the risk, he says he will not stop advocating for what farmworkers—especially undocumented workers—deserve. He wants a better future for his children, one where their worth isn’t undermined by their employer.

“I think that we’re invisible still. And more than anything, we want respect and recognition,” says Jimenez.

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