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Fair Treatment on the Farm, Part 1

September 16, 2018

“A Harvest Scene” by James Ward (c 1800), Yale Center for British Art, Author Google Arts and Culture (PD)

Apples, oranges, cherries, blueberries, tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, garlic, spinach, asparagus, and almonds are among the foods still planted, nurtured, and/or harvested by hand [1].  But American agricultural businessmen are confronting a growing labor shortage [2A].

Some are making difficult choices about abandoning key fruits and vegetables; importing workers under special visa; replacing workers with machinery, where available; or moving their operations overseas [2B].  A few have already begun raising wages well beyond minimum, to no avail.

Despite all this, the myth remains that illegal immigrants are depriving Americans of jobs which should be legitimately theirs.  And the treatment undocumented migrants receive is frequently below par.

Illusory Wages

“Nine in 10 agriculture workers in California are still foreign born, and more than half are undocumented, according to a federal survey [2C].”

One major reason Americans disdain seemingly high wage farm jobs is that such wages are illusory [3A].  Farm work is seasonal.  Farm workers alternate between months of 60-hour weeks and long stretches of unemployment [2D].

California in 2015 had 705,000 farm workers who earned an average $17,400 (58% percent of what a full-time worker would have earned) [3B].  The largest category of farm workers – those 293,900 employed by labor contractors – earned an average $9,900 (no more than 44% of what a full-time worker would have earned).

Physically Demanding Jobs

“ ‘[T]he impact of immigrant labor on the wages of native-born workers is low… However, undocumented workers often work the unpleasant, back-breaking jobs that native-born workers are not willing to do.’ ”

-Brookings Institution, Senior Fellow, Vanda Felbab-Brown [4]

More often than not, immigrant workers do the disagreeable and physically demanding jobs that native-born Americans prefer to avoid [5].  Gutting fish and picking fruit at an unrelenting pace in 95 degree heat are among these.

Heat-Related Deaths 

Heat stress can cause nausea, fatigue, cramps, heat stroke, and death [6A].  Chronic dehydration can cause kidney disease.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that 783 workers died from heat stress between 1992-2016 [7A].  Some 70,000 suffered serious heat-related injuries during the same period [7B].

The federal government does require employers to maintain a safe workplace.  However, there is no federal standard protecting workers against excessive heat [6B].

Employer Whims

“Heat sickness is a symptom of an agricultural system where laborers can’t speak up against unsafe field conditions, in part because many are undocumented [8A].”

According to the Dept. of Labor, 47% of America’s farm laborers are undocumented [7C].  This means their jobs are subject to the whims of an employer.

Since farm workers are paid by the piece, rather than the hour, they often avoid taking bathroom or water breaks for fear of losing pay.  Reporting symptoms will result in being pulled from a job.  Demanding rest, shade, and water can result in retaliation by an employer and job loss [8B].

[1]  National Public Radio (NPR), “4 Labor-Intensive Crops Farmers Wish They Had Robots to Harvest” by Eliza Barclay, 9/7/15,

[2A, 2B, 2C, and 2D]  Los Angeles Times, “Wages rise on California farms.  Americans still don’t want the job” by Natalie Kitroeff and Geoffrey Mohan, 3/17/17,

[3A and 3B]  Rural Migration News, “Why don’t Americans apply for $30,000 a year farm jobs?”, 10/16/17,

[4]  Brookings Institution, “Do immigrants ‘steal’ jobs from American workers”, 8/24/17,

[5]  New York Times, “Immigrants Aren’t Taking Americans’ Jobs, New Study Finds” by Julia Preston, 9/21/16,

[6A and 6B]  Quartz, “Extreme heat is killing America’s farm workers” by Jeremy Deaton, 9/1/18,

[7A, 7B, and 7C]  Mother Jones, “Farmworkers Are Dying from Extreme Heat” by Nathalie Baptiste, 8/24/18,

[8A]  Mother Jones, “How Heat Kills Farmworkers” by Ingfei Chen, 9/20/17,

[8B]  North Carolina has historically ranked among states with the worst rate of heat fatalities.  Many North Carolina employers follow a field-sanitation rule of providing drinking water within a quarter-mile of worksites.  But without a requirement for rest or shade breaks, workers may not have the chance to use it.  See, again, Mother Jones, “How Heat Kills Farmworkers” by Ingfei Chen, 9/20/17,

The spiritual implications of this will be discussed next week,
in Part 2 of this series.




From → Immigration, Justice

  1. An excellent post Anna thank you.

  2. It is sad that undocumented workers are not treated fairly..
    They work harder than most.. I remember how the carnival hired all Mexicans to work year after year. Many could not read English, the poor man was sucked through a large engine fan because he could not read the warning signs.. Finally an investigation brought charges against the company.

  3. I always smile when I read comments about how immigrants (legal or otherwise) are depriving American workers of jobs that they feel should somehow be theirs. Since moving to Florida I have seen countless buses loaded with day workers either going to or coming from the fields and I have yet to see the 1st Caucasian departing from one of those buses. When you understand the pay rate for this type of labor, most Caucasian’s have the attitude that such work is beneath them.

    It troubles me greatly to know that these workers are literally breaking their backs to plant and harvest food that the average consumer never thinks about how it arrived on their table. These people work very hard in 90 deg heat and humidity and often in very dangerous conditions. And that includes young children, in spite of the companies saying otherwise.

    Just recently a farm worker was killed on the job while operating some equipment. Does anyone really believe he received the proper training? Of course, none of these workers would dare voice their concerns because they would be replaced very quickly.

    I appreciate you tackling this subject Anna, and look forward to the next installment.

    • I realize this is not a popular topic, so I doubly appreciate your insights, Ron. In researching the topic, I came across a striking comment by one farmer. The rare Americans who do sign on for the work, he said, don’t come back after lunch.

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