Overtime, minimum wage, health care, housing and safety are top concerns for those working in agriculture. With many farm workers in the country without documentation, their willingness as a group to speak up against unfair practices, or to complain about wages or benefits, is minimal. Even legal immigrants are often unwilling to jeopardize their positions, with little other opportunities to pursue. How can this diverse group of essential employees sow and reap our harvests, yet often suffer from substandard living conditions and employment conditions not acceptable in any other industry? And how can farmers – often struggling to make a living themselves – afford to meet higher standards?

farm labor issues

Labor issues are nothing new in agriculture. From slave labor to indentured servants, much of our nation’s farming history was built on the backs of laborers who didn’t have a voice. While many family farms have and continue to have few, if any, non-family employees, others rely on farm workers. Workers hired under the H-2A temporary agricultural guest worker visa program, day workers – whether authorized or undocumented – and legal immigrants who are now U.S. citizens, are all a piece of the agriculture scene, on farms big and small, across the nation. Add in interns and apprentices, and the labor scene on our region’s small and mid-sized farms, across all agricultural enterprises, is a diversified one.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ERS (Economic Research Service) data, the total number of farm workers is approximately 775,000, with 290,000 of these workers employed in the Southwest. The Northeast labor force consists of less than 75,000 hired agricultural workers. More than 50 percent of the nation’s farm workers are from Mexico, with the next largest percentage – about 30 percent – from the U.S., including Puerto Rico. Central American workers, and those from other countries, currently comprise a small overall percentage of agricultural labor.

Although the Northeast has the least amount of hired farm labor in any region, worker rights issues have dominated the news during the past year. Minimum wage laws, the immigration enforcement on New York dairy farms, recent work-related deaths of farmers and farm workers, and the advocacy of numerous organizations in the region, have all helped to focus attention on the issues facing farmers and farm workers.

Systemic issues

Farm worker advocacy has to involve the rights of farmers, too. How to do that, while improving conditions for farm laborers now, has become the linchpin issue for many advocacy programs.

CATA – The Farm Worker Support Committee is a nonprofit based in southern New Jersey. Established in 1979, CATA serves workers in Maryland and Pennsylvania. South Jersey agriculture employs numerous amounts of migrant laborers, about 15,000 annually, to produce the produce destined for the Philadelphia and New York City markets.

Jessica Culley, an organizer with CATA, recently hosted a live webinar, along with program immigration specialist Leila Borrero Krouse. They discussed the program’s mission and the impossibility of creating a sustainable food system that doesn’t sustain its own workers or its farmers.

CATA isn’t looking for quick fixes. The organization is seeking to bring changes to a food system that is inherently inequitable. Farm workers are often disenfranchised, afraid of deportation, isolated within the larger community and ignored by the local food movement, whose emphasis thus far has been on the origins of the food, but hasn’t extended to the workers who are employed on the farms.

“Conditions faced by farm workers on our farms are often lost in translation as we build a local food system,” Culley said in the presentation. “We have to somehow work together to create an alternative,” which includes the needs of small- and medium-sized farms, farmers and farm workers alike.

Mary-Howell Martens, of Lakeview Organic Grain, in Penn Yann, New York, operates a certified organic farm and feed mill, offering seed, feed and livestock health care products. While the business does not employ migrant or temporary workers, Martens does have two employees of Puerto Rican descent, and is familiar with local labor conditions for Hispanic farm workers. Dairy farms, vineyards and apple orchards in the Penn Yann region often rely on a predominantly Hispanic workforce.

Martens focuses on the conundrum of farmer needs – which aren’t being met – as well as those of farm workers. Many of the farm worker concerns, she said, are those that many farmers can’t provide without assistance, either from the government, or from the community and consumers, due to the lack of compensation paid to the farmers who produce the food. While difficult work, long hours, and the temporary or seasonal nature of most farm work – as well as the instability of the work if a crop fails – should justify an added hourly wage, if workers are to have a decent standard of living, doing so requires more equitable pay for farmers.

“While it is true conditions should improve for farm employees, they also need to improve for farmers! This is becoming particularly important in New York, especially this year in a profound drought, and with record-low conventional milk and grain prices. When many farmers are seeing their income severely cut, while New York State is proposing a minimum wage hike to $15.00/hour,” Martens said.

In New York State, particularly the dairy industry, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been making sweeps of farms, rounding up anyone Hispanic, often including legal workers, to find the undocumented, according to Martens. Sweeps – where police patrol the streets around Catholic churches after mass, or other areas where members of the immigrant community are likely to gather – have been occurring across the region, she said.

Martens sees many issues of concern regarding the current manner in which migrant farm workers are treated. With the fear of deportation looming, many won’t seek health care, even if it is available and accessible to them, she said. The focus on allowing male workers into the country for work, but not allowing their families to come here, too, leads to social concerns here and abroad. Language barriers only add to myriad issues.

farm labor issues

Vermont immigrant dairy workers launch the Milk with Dignity Program in front of the Vermont state house in 2015.

Worker concerns

Migrant Justice is a Vermont-based nonprofit focused, much like CATA, on providing a community in which farm workers can find their collective voices, and empower themselves to better represent their needs for safe and fair working conditions. The organization has prioritized the concerns facing farm workers. The program’s top priorities areas are categorized as: dignified work and quality housing; freedom of movement and access to transportation; freedom from discrimination; and access to health care.

The dairy industry in Vermont is “the most economically important sector in the state’s economy,” Will Lambek, of Migrant Justice, said. “As farms are growing, and yet still facing volatile milk prices that create a need for more labor, and, at the same time, create a downward force on wages,” farm workers are bearing the brunt of this unfair industry structure.

The Vermont dairy industry’s farm worker demographic has changed dramatically in the past decade. According to Lambek, about 10 percent of dairy farm workers were migrants 10 years ago, primarily from southern regions of Mexico. Today, the state’s dairy work force is almost 90 percent migrant labor. Cost of production has increased, pricing has decreased, and Vermont has lost about 10 percent of its dairy farms in the past decade.

In Vermont, most agriculture workers are exempted from minimum wage laws. In a survey conducted by Migrant Justice, 40 percent of farm workers indicated that not receiving the state’s minimum wage of $8.63 is their biggest concern, followed by long work hours often without break periods, unequal treatment compared to that which U.S.- born employees receive, and lack of any wage increases after years of work. Thirty percent complained of overcrowded and substandard housing, and 30 percent reported having been injured on the job.

“No farmer wants to be a bad employer,” Lambek said. “The problem of poor working conditions is systemic in the industry,” and dairy pricing structure is a major culprit.

According to the organization, Vermont farms employ approximately 1,500 migrant workers annually, many in the dairy sector. Migrant Justice launched its Milk with Dignity program in 2014, which focuses on engaging dairy corporations to combat farm worker abuses in their supply chains,

Milk with Dignity was able to implement a code of conduct focused on improving worker standards of living. Corporations signing the code of conduct are made responsible for the conditions that exist on farms supplying the milk, and the enforcement of the Code is “backed by the market consequences,” Lambek said.

According to Lambek, the program attacks the industry’s Achilles’ heel, as “the industry structure, where farmers aren’t getting a fair price for milk, and workers are feeling the brunt of it,” is altered when money-making corporations have a financial risk from not upholding farm worker rights.

By targeted corporate practices, the campaign educates the consumer public about worker rights issues, and provides them with the opportunity to vote for farm worker rights via their purchases. Dairy processors who sign the code of conduct are contractually bound to pay a premium for milk from farms in the Milk with Dignity supply chain. A portion of that premium is passed onto the farm workers directly, and a portion stays with the farmer.

“We’ve added that part of the premium stays with the farmer. The farmer is working side-by-side with the farm workers,” Lambek said.

This “industry approach to the supply chain,” with third-party monitoring to ensure compliance, is “not a model that can only work with a premium or specialty brand,” such as Ben and Jerry’s – in negotiation to be the first Milk with Dignity processor – but can work across the entire dairy industry, Lambek said. “Any company that has an interest in their bottom line, and has an interest in assuring their consumers that their products are made without human rights violations,” can utilize the Milk with Dignity model.

farm labor issues

Migrant Justice leader Danilo Lopez speaks at the 2013 signing ceremony of a Vermont law allowing immigrant drivers to obtain a license. Lopez Danilo is flanked by immigrant farm workers who fought for the bill and by Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin.

Finding paid labor

Because dairy usually isn’t considered a seasonal industry, dairy farmers are not able to utilize the H-2A visa program. Outside of the H-2A program, many farmers see little choice but to hire workers who may or may not be undocumented. While some farmers use the Department of Homeland Security’s E-verify program, others rely on labor contractors to (hopefully) provide a legal work force.

While the H-2A program represents a legal route for finding migrant employees, farmers are divided over the program, often citing its myriad regulations, inspections, and difficult application process as detriments. Others have found a stable work force, which comes back to the farm year after year, and feel it is worth the hassle to obtain reliable employees.

The H-2A program is growing in popularity in the Northeast. Almost 8,000 H-2A certifications were issued in New Jersey, New York, Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island combined for 2015. This is the highest level since 2009, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Farmers must document that they have made reasonable attempts to hire U.S. citizens before being eligible to find workers via the program. Wages for H-2A workers are set by the program, and any employees not in the program, but doing the same work, must receive the same wage. Free housing, provided by the farmer, is inspected before acceptance, and often in unannounced visits. Safe transportation to the farm, a day off per week, and paid transportation to and from the worker’s country of origin are all farmer responsibilities.

But it is program safeguards such as these that farm worker justice advocates have identified as being the root of abuses.

The Farmworker Justice Program’s report, “No Way To Treat a Guest: Why the H-2A Agricultural Visa Program Fails U.S. and Foreign Workers,” details many of these concerns.

Whether farmworkers are here via the H-2A program, are legal residents, or are undocumented, they often lack community support systems, have language barriers and fear repercussions if they speak out against unfair practices. With labor laws that exempt farmworkers from some of the protections non-agricultural employees enjoy, and a bleak economic outlook for many farms, farmworkers will remain an overlooked piece of our food system’s puzzle. Assuring that small and mid-sized farmers are compensated fairly within our food system may be the best chance for reforming the lives of farmworkers.

“The people that are growing our food are the people with the least access to the food,” Culley, of CATA, said. “How do we build support for sustainable farms that offer dignified work to both the farmers and farm workers?”