Migrant Farmworkers: America’s New Plantation Workers

Christine Ahn, Melissa Moore and Nick Parker | 04.01.2004

Food First Backgrounder, Spring 2004, Vol. 10, No. 2

In June 2003, Artimo and his brother, Mario, crammed into the back scat of a car driven by immigrant smugglers known as coyotes. They were on their way to Washington to pick apples and cherries. Throughout their journey across the mountainous terrain from Tijuana to San Diego, they were forced to crouch down to avoid being seen. When sirens began to wail, the driver sped up, lost control, and collided into another car. Although Artimo suffered three broken ribs and other injuries, he was the only one to survive.

Thousands of migrants risk death and incarceration daily by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. In the blistering 118-degree Arizona May heat in 2001, 14 immigrants perished in the rugged desert days after smugglers abandoned them. In 2003, 17 immigrants, including a 5-year old boy, died of dehydration in the back of an abandoned truck in Texas. Despite the danger, ‘illegal’ migration rates jumped 25 percent last year, and deaths have risen since 1994. Approximately 99 people die annually from exposure to heat, cold, and dehydration, compared with an average of six deaths in 1994.

Why are so many thousands risking their lives to cross the border? This backgrounder explores how trends in food production and developments in government policy foster conditions that make U.S. farmworkers ripe for exploitation.

The Plight of U.S. Farmworkers

More than two million year-round and seasonal migrant farmworkers, including 100,000 children, work in the U.S. About two thirds are immigrants, of whom 80 percent are from Mexico. Just 14 percent of all farmworkers have full-time work.

Agricultural work is among the most dangerous occupations, with injuries and illness disabling farmworkers at a rate three times that of the general population. In California, the average death rate for farmworkers is five times that of workers in other industries. Approximately 300,000 farmworkers in the U.S. arc poisoned by pesticides annually.

Farmworkers are paid poverty wages in spite of these risks. Three out of four U.S. farm workers earn less than $10,000 annually, and three out of five families live below the federal poverty line. Living conditions are equally harsh as migrant housing commonly lacks plumbing and working appliances, and is often next to pesticide-treated fields. Farmworkers spend more than 30 percent of their income on this sub-standard housing.

Farmworkers seldom have health care, disability insurance, vacation, or a pension, and rarely apply for welfare. In a 1997-98 study, only five percent of farmworkers reported having health insurance covered by their employers for non-work related injuries, 28 percent reported compensation for work-related illnesses, and only one percent of workers used Social Security or disability insurance. Just 13 percent of farmworker families receive Medicaid, 10 percent get Food Stamps, and 10 percent participate in the Woman, Infants, and Children program.