by Sarah Baker
85% of our fruits and vegetables are harvested by hand, but the farmworkers that harvest our produce remain largely invisible. Farmworkers are one of the most exploited and marginalized group of workers in the US. They are exempted from many of the US federal and state labor laws that protect workers. Issues that farmworkers face include low pay, job insecurity, health and safety hazards such as pesticide poisoning, inadequate housing, child labor, social isolation, food insecurity, and barriers to accessing healthcare. Many farmworkers come on H-2A guestworker visas or are undocumented and therefore fear retaliation or deportation for speaking out against these conditions.
When we think about farmworkers, we usually imagine them to be men. While farmworkers are mainly young men, women make up 22% of the agricultural workforce in the U.S. Farmworker women endure all the issues that farmworker men face, as well as issues that are unique or amplified because they are women. Female farmworkers are frequently even more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and marginalization than farmworker men. Farmworker women face issues such as hiring and pay discrimination, sexual harassment and assault, and violation of reproductive rights.
Farmworker women face hiring and pay discrimination within our agricultural system. H-2A guestworker visas are generally not given to women, so more farmworker women must come into the US as undocumented to work, which creates conditions that are ripe for exploitation and marginalization. Also, farmworker women are under greater pressure under the piece-rate system of pay and often need to work longer hours in order to earn the same income as a man. For example, the average personal income of farmworker women is $11,250, compared to $16,250 farmworker men. Women also face discrimination in accessing more desirable jobs, such as machinery operation or pesticide appliers, or being promoted to supervisory positions which are better paid.
Sexual harassment is a major and prevalent issue that farmworker women face. In a survey of farmworker women in California, 90% of women identified sexual harassment as a major problem. Sexual harassment of farmworker women can range from inappropriate touching and comments to rape. Many women are forced to have sex with supervisors to keep their jobs or put up with constant propositions for sex by supervisors. Farmworker women may not report instances of sexual harassment and abuse for fear of losing their jobs or being deported, especially when they have families and children depending on them.
Additionally, farmworker women face violation of their reproductive rights. Women in the fields are exposed to toxic pesticides, of which pregnant women (and their fetuses) are particularly vulnerable to. Exposure to pesticides is linked to infertility, miscarriages, and birth defects. For example, a child, Carlitos Candelario, was born in 2004 without arms and legs after his mother was heavily exposed to pesticides while pregnant and working in tomato fields in Florida. Farmworkers face barriers to health care and for farmworker women this means barriers to accessing prenatal care while pregnant and also other reproductive care, such as access to birth control.
These are just some of the issues that farmworker women face. Farmworkers play a vital role in harvesting our food, but are the most exploited and marginalized group of workers in the U.S. and farmworker women are even more vulnerable than farmworker men. These hardworking women are part of the backbone of the U.S. agricultural system while also holding their families and communities together. When working to advocate for and improve conditions with farmworkers, we must not fo