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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Many Hazards for Farmworkers

Air Date: Week of

Activists are pushing for national legislation that will mandate frequent water and shade breaks for farmworkers, who are often exposed to extreme heat. (Photo: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

As extreme heat, wildfires, and severe storms intensify, the already hazardous work of farmworkers is likely to become even more dangerous. But these essential workers, who are often undocumented and underpaid, continue to be excluded from crucial protections. Host Paloma Beltran reports on what is at stake for the farmworkers who are the backbone of American agriculture. 


BELTRAN: The history of second-class citizenship for Hispanics is reflected in the present treatment of farm workers in the US, nearly three quarters of whom are from Spanish speaking countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.

CURWOOD: They are the backbone of industrial agriculture here.

BELTRAN: For sure, that’s a trillion-dollar industry that feeds the country, but farm workers are often treated as disposable assets, routinely exposed to toxic chemicals, extreme heat, and poor air quality.

CURWOOD: Yeah, Paloma, sounds like it’s such a dangerous job.

BELTRAN: It really is, Steve. So, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, I wanted to take a close look at how farmworkers are treated in the US and how that might change. I started with a man we’ve had on the show a few times in the past. Jesus is originally from Mexico and has been working on American farms for more than 20 years. Since he doesn’t have citizenship or a visa, in the past, he’s had to cross the border illegally through the desert several times to see his family.

JESUS: Pues el desierto es, arriesga uno la vida. Las altas temperaturas del calor. Es muy peligroso cruzar el desierto, no se recomendaría a ninguna persona. Y ahí mueren muchas personas, se deshidratan, se desmayan. Y es triste cruzar ahí el desierto porque ahí nadie te escucha.

BELTRAN: He says that in the desert high temperatures can be deadly. A lot of people die, they may faint and die from dehydration. And it’s sad because in the desert no one hears you.

Jesus has been an agricultural worker for 22 years. He’s currently working picking tomatoes in California and hasn’t seen his family in 12 years.

Farmworkers like Jesus are mainly responsible for harvesting crops as well as processing and packing before sale. Contrary to farm owners they have no stake in the business, they’re hired hands. Without them an enormous amount of food would rot in the fields. And hiring enough workers is a growing challenge. It’s back breaking, dangerous work and becoming even more hazardous with climate change. 21 days of the US growing season are considered unsafe because of extreme heat. And that’s only expected to increase in the coming years, according to Stanford University research scientist Michelle Tigchelaar.

Wildfire smoke, which can lead to many respiratory illnesses, is another health concern for farmworkers. (Photo: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

TIGCHELAAR: In our study, we found that by the middle of the century, we expect that the number of unsafe working days for farmworkers will double compared to what it is now. And it might triple by the end of the century, if our carbon emissions continue on the pathway that they're on.

BELTRAN: California is an agricultural hot spot home to nearly half of all fruits, nuts, and vegetables produced in the US. California is also particularly vulnerable to heat waves and wildfires. And smokey air can be hazardous for workers harvesting the apples, asparagus and avocado that ripen in wildfire season. Clara Qin is a Ph.D candidate at the University of California Santa Cruz studying the impacts of wildfire smoke on the health of farmworkers in Napa and Sonoma County, California’s wine country.

QIN: We found that during the 2020 growing season, one out of every twelve working hours took place under air quality conditions that were considered to be unhealthy by the US EPA.

BELTRAN: Wildfire smoke is a toxic brew of fine particulates, ground-level ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide.

QIN: We do know that increased levels of particulate pollution from wildfire, smoke and other sources. It can lead to all sorts of respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, increased rates of mortality. And also particulate pollution has been linked to increases in the spread and the mortality rate of COVID-19. COVID-19 disproportionately impacts farmworkers due to their working conditions and exacerbates their sort of pre-existing social vulnerabilities.

Since many farmworkers are undocumented, they are frequently excluded from federal assistance in the event of extreme storms like Hurricane Ian. (Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

BELTRAN: Farmworkers are also highly exposed to pesticides, toxic chemicals used in industrial agriculture, says Ricardo Salvador with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

SALVADOR: We and others have done research that documents that actually, the susceptibility of farmworkers to pesticides in the field increases with external temperature. And so these two things working combined are only going to make things more precarious for the very people without whom the food system would not work.

BELTRAN: The daily grind of working in extreme heat with unsafe air and chemical exposure is bad enough, but farmworkers are also often unprotected from extreme climate events like Hurricane Ian, which recently tore through Florida and the Carolinas. Florida has an $8 billion agricultural economy. It’s the country’s top citrus producer and second largest vegetable producer. Thousands of migrant workers in Florida are responsible for our morning orange juice, but when disaster strikes they are left to their own devices, says the Executive Director of Farm Workers Association of Florida, Neza Xiuhtecutli.

XIUHTECUTLI: Farmworkers, because many of them are undocumented, they do not qualify for federal assistance. So they live in kind of low-lying, vulnerable areas. If a hurricane or any kind of tropical storm hits, they are some of the communities most affected. And not qualifying for federal aid, they just don't really have anybody to turn to. Often they also get displaced, having to go somewhere else to find a place to live or a place to work.

Rooted in a racist history of exploitation, exemptions for farmworkers persist in labor laws today, depriving them of basic rights afforded to other US workers. (Photo: Sharon Mollerus, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

BELTRAN: Estela Martinez is a farmworker based in Florida who’s lost work due to Hurricane Ian.

MARTINEZ: Vivimos al dia, aveces hasta ni al dia porque ha habido ocasiones que se nos acaba el dinero y pues ya no hay. Y cuando llegan los huracanes, sobre todo eso, las lluvias, es cuando afecta y es cuando otra vez vuelve a bajar el trabajo y la fruta se empieza a dañar

BELTRAN: She says that farm workers live paycheck to paycheck and it’s not uncommon for money to run out especially when hurricanes or heavy rains hit, leaving them without work. Despite the dangers of their work, farmworkers are poorly paid. Farmworkers in California and Florida make less than $30,000 per year compared to the average US worker, who makes roughly $54,000 annually. Many farm workers work on a ‘piece rate’- they’re paid based on how much they harvest. Which Neza says discourages them from taking breaks, even in extreme heat.

XIUHTECUTLI: We were asking some workers to take some breaks, some water breaks, and many of them would say no, because you know, the moment I stop working, the person next to me is going to be picking what I would be picking. So in essence they're competing against their own co-workers. So that creates the mental barrier to workers taking care of their own bodies.

BELTRAN: Exploitation of farm workers isn’t a new idea. Enslaved people, both Native Americans and African Americans were the first farmworkers. Even after slavery was abolished farmworkers were omitted from major US labor reforms like the National Labor Relations Act passed during the Great Depression. It established rights for workers like collective bargaining, unionization, overtime pay, worker compensation and child labor laws. But farm workers were purposefully excluded from the new law, a decision rooted in racism, says Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, the Director of the UCLA Center for Mexican Studies.

Without the security of documentation, many farmworkers who raise safety concerns face the threat of immediate dismissal. Activists say this makes unionizing critical. (Photo: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

RIVERA-SALGADO: It was excluded because of the politics of that era. FDR needed The National Labor Relations Act to be enacted and Southern Democrats controlled the Senate and they demanded that the domestic workers and farm workers be excluded. At that time, close to 75%, 80% of farm workers and domestic workers were African Americans in the South. So clearly, the racism that persisted at that time was translated into the curtailing of these rights for farm workers.

BELTRAN: That racism in agriculture started to include Hispanics after World War II. With the decline of European migration to the United States, growers lobbied for a guest worker program. The Bracero Program temporarily allowed more than 70,000 Mexican workers into the U.S., workers that toiled the fields amid a legacy of slavery and racism, says Salvador.

SALVADOR: There's an entire Division of Occupational Safety and Health in the law, that takes care of those of us that are office workers, you know, white collar workers have, you know, healthy, safe conditions that we can work in, and yet people that work in one of the most hazardous environments that there is, don't have anything like that.

BELTRAN: Even children of farmworkers are not afforded basic protections.

SALVADOR: There are exemptions in labor law that make it okay for children of farmworkers, ages say as young as 12, to be legally in the field performing work with their families. You know, those kids should be in school. But if you're the child of a farm worker, it's legal for those children to be out in the field. So we know exactly what we're doing, and we know exactly whom we're doing it to.

BELTRAN: It took 30 years but ultimately thousands of farmworkers and activists like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta formed the industry’s first union, the United Farmworkers, in 1962.


BELTRAN: Protestors marched 300 miles from Delano, California to the state’s capitol in Sacramento. That coincided with the biggest grape boycott in history and many other peaceful protests. Farmworker unions seemed promising but never included more than 2 percent workers. A lot of factors made it tough to organize. Farm workers are often difficult to reach because they work in remote locations. Many are seasonal, meaning they follow the harvest and travel across the country throughout the year. And they often live in housing that is owned and controlled by employers. Teresa Romero, President of the United Farmworkers, says that leads to intimidation.

Amidst mounting pressure, California Governor Gavin Newsom ultimately signed Assembly Bill 2183, which will make it easier for farmworkers to vote in union elections. (Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

ROMERO: Farmworkers right now to work for union representation there’s only a way to do it and it is in the premises of the employer, which intimidates farmworkers. Farmworkers, when they start organizing, are fired. When they file a lawsuit then the attorneys call immigration.

BELTRAN: Roughly half of all farmworkers lack papers to work here legally or have a temporary immigration visa that their employer controls. Starting in 2019 the House twice passed measures that could ease farmworkers' path to legalization, but the attempts have failed in the Senate. In 2021 California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a measure that would’ve made it easier for farmworkers to vote by mail to unionize.

So in August of 2022 hundreds of farmworkers repeated the 1962 march from Delano to Sacramento in sweltering heat to demand he sign a similar bill into law.

UFW ORGANIZER: Every single one of you, your voices are so strong and powerful, you need to let this governor know that he needs to sign this bill!

BELTRAN: At the end of September Governor Newsom finally signed the measure. It expands options for farm workers to unionize through a vote-by-mail process or through ballot cards that can be dropped off at the state’s agricultural labor relations board. The law goes into effect in January 2023. And supporters are citing it as a major milestone in the movement for farmworker rights.




IOP Science | “Work Adaptations Insufficient to Address Growing Heat Risk for US Agricultural Workers”

About the Union of Concerned Scientists

Nature | “Wildfire Smoke Impacts Respiratory Health More Than Fine Particles from Other Sources: Observational Evidence from Southern California”

About the Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc

Learn about the National Labor Relations Act

About the United Farm Workers

Capital Public Radio, Inc | “Farmworkers March 335 Miles to Sacramento in Push for Labor Rights”

CA.gov | “Alongside Farmworkers at the State Capitol, Governor Newsom Signs Law Expanding Farmworker Union Rights”


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