Farmworkers in the United States are among the most vulnerable of all workers. They have fewer legal protections than employees in most other occupational sectors while enduring higher levels of wage theft, substandard housing, pesticide exposure, and other workplace dangers.
After a long history of being excluded from labor laws that protect workers, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta organized farmworkers to challenge abusive practices by unscrupulous employers. Despite intense—and sometimes violent—opposition by growers, the farmworker movement won concessions and gradually secured some basic protections, such as employment and housing standards in the Migrant Seasonal Agricultural Protection Act of 1983. The movement is still working to win full wage and hour protections. Unauthorized laborers, who make up 50 percent of the agricultural workforce, remain especially vulnerable due to their lack of legal status. These unauthorized workers are the silent bedrock of the $192 billion U.S. agricultural farm system.
Under President Barack Obama’s November 2014 immigration directives, approximately 509,000 unauthorized farmworkers will be eligible for temporary protection from removal and work authorization. This protection will help stabilize a critical component of the U.S. workforce, strengthen the agricultural sector, and benefit the U.S. economy as a whole.
Demographics and role of unauthorized farmworkers in the economy
Farm work is primarily performed by immigrants, who comprise 71 percent of farmworkers. The vast majority are male, between the ages of 25 and 44 and heavily concentrated in California, Florida, Washington state, Texas, Oregon, and North Carolina.
Because of the badly broken U.S. immigration system, many of these farmworkers lack legal immigration status. Of the 2.4 million farmworkers in the United States, about 50 percent are unauthorized; some estimates are as high as 70 percent.
These workers are a vital part of the U.S. agricultural sector. They perform the hard manual labor and the exhausting, back-breaking work that puts food on American tables, and they do so in some of the most difficult and dangerous of conditions imaginable. Farmworkers fill roles in the U.S. economy that might otherwise be vacant; studies show that even in tough economic times, the farming industry has experienced a shortage of labor. The Center for Global Development, for example, concluded that close to none of the unemployed U.S. citizens in North Carolina are willing to take a farm labor position for an entire season.
Without these workers, farms would face a significant labor deficit. A 2006 report from the American Farm Bureau Federation found that if the agriculture industry’s access to migrant labor were cut off, at least $5 billion to $9 billion in annual production would have been lost over the following one to two years.
Not only do unauthorized farmworkers support the agricultural sector, they also help create jobs for American workers. A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, shows that each farmworker, regardless of immigration status, supports three upstream jobs—such as packaging, transportation, and sale of agricultural goods—that depend on the manual harvesting of crops. Those upstream jobs are predominantly held by citizens and permanent residents.
Of course, unauthorized farmworkers also support the economy as consumers. By participating in the local economy and purchasing goods and services, unauthorized farmworkers generate more economic activity and sustain local jobs in the process—jobs that ultimately strengthen the U.S. economy as a whole.
How the immigration directives will help farmworkers
On November 20, 2014, President Obama announced the creation of the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, program. He also announced an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program to cover older DREAMers—those brought to the United States as children who were older than 30 when DACA was announced. These directives would provide a reprieve from deportation and work authorization to close to 5 million people, including 509,000 farmworkers and another 217,000 who are the spouses and children of farmworkers.
The farmworkers who are eligible for relief would also gain some important protections from workplace abuses. A lack of regulatory oversight, exemplified by the low enforcement rate of farmworker protections, has allowed for a multitude of workplace abuses on farms across the nation. These include wage theft, sexual harassment, and unacceptable health and safety conditions, including extremely harmful exposure to pesticides.
Recent cases in which farmworkers have faced sexual harassment, wage and hour abuses, and health and safety violations demonstrate the power that bad-apple employers have over unauthorized farmworkers. These cases include the lawsuits against Harris Farms in 2002 and Daley Farm in 2012 and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s settlement with the United Farm Workers in 2006. Human trafficking is another prevalent concern: A 2011 report from the Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation and the United Farm Workers estimates that as many as 1,750 people a year are trafficked into the United States for the purpose of forced agricultural labor.
Overall, there is an alarming absence of consequences for employers, in particular in the cases of sexual harassment. Of the lawsuits filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with protecting workers from gender-based discrimination, none of the accused perpetrators in sexual assault cases against female farmworkers have been tried in criminal court; a few have settled out of court.
These cases highlight the vulnerabilities of unauthorized farmworkers today. Studies have shown that these workers are far less likely to come forward to report abuses for fear of deportation. The November immigration directives arm unauthorized workers with two vital protections: Legal work authorization and relief from deportation. In the face of lax enforcement policies, these protections will encourage farmworkers to report workplace violations—the foundation of the labor enforcement regime—and human rights abuses without fear of deportation. Additionally, relief from deportation will allow farmworkers to more easily change employers if they face exploitation, rather than continuing to work under harsh conditions.
How the U.S. economy will benefit
In addition to protecting farmworkers from abuse, temporary legal status will also mean higher wages and more economic productivity. A recent Center for American Progress report shows that unauthorized immigrants who receive deferred action and temporary work permits experience an 8.5 percent increase in earnings. Higher wages translate into more tax revenue and, because farmworkers are not just workers but consumers as well, it also translates to more money available to spend in local businesses. This additional revenue, in turn, generates more economic activity, more job creation, higher income for all workers, and even more tax revenue. The CAP report also estimates that the 5 million beneficiaries of the immigration directives—including farmworkers—would generate $22.6 billion in new tax revenue over the first five years alone.
Executive action is not enough
While the expansion of DACA and the creation of DAPA are important initial steps toward providing some increased protection for unauthorized farmworkers, more must be done to ensure that farmworkers are treated justly. Under the 2014 immigration directives, only about 50 percent of all unauthorized farmworkers would be eligible for the temporary reprieve from deportation and work authorization. Legislative immigration reform, by contrast, could put the entire unauthorized population on a pathway to permanent, legal status.
In order to adequately protect U.S. farmworkers, reforms must be made to grant immigrant workers the same rights as employees in most other sectors, to expand protections from abuse, and to ensure that those protections are enforced. The United Farmworkers and Costco, along with other businesses and organizations, have already come together under the Equitable Food Initiative, or EFI, to develop standards, training processes, and a certification to protect farmworkers and ensure safer food. The EFI goes above and beyond existing legislation, especially in cases where farmworkers have been excluded. As such, all farmworkers under the EFI have full coverage for workers compensation, paid breaks, and even additional protection from dangerous pesticides.
The United States benefits greatly from unauthorized farmworkers, who are crucial to the U.S. agricultural sector and broader economy. They deserve our support and full protection.
Isabel Skilton is an intern with the Immigration Policy team at the Center for American Progress.