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Two-year news investigation spotlights abuse of farmworkers

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Tina Vasquez for Yes! Magazine

(California News Service) Latine workers form the backbone of the American agricultural industry. Without them, we could not eat. Without them, our larger food systems would crumble.

But farmworkers earn “far less than even some of the lowest-paid workers in the U.S. labor force,” according to the Economic Policy Institute. And the overwhelming majority of farm laborers in the United States are Latine, while more than 40 percent are undocumented. Another 10 percent of the farm labor force working in crops comes to the U.S. as part of the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program, a guest worker program overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor that allows American employers to temporarily hire migrant workers to perform agricultural work. Employers can request workers from 86 eligible countries, though 90 percent hail from Mexico.

The World Bank has described agricultural development as “one of the most powerful tools to end extreme poverty.” Conservation organizations report that sustainable agricultural operations can help preserve and restore habitats, protect watersheds, and improve soil health and water quality. Experts suggest that expanding urban agriculture can even help fight racism and increase health equity.

If agricultural development is, indeed, the linchpin for a more just world, then realizing that world requires listening to and caring for the human beings whose labor facilitates that development. It also demands we reckon with how an industry built on exploitation can pave the road to justice. 

While working on a long-term investigation about wage theft and abuse in the H-2A program, I heard stories from farmworkers about their friends, colleagues, and family members who were worked to death or trafficked as part of the H-2A program, or raped in the fields by an employer. Stories about injustices have become normalized in the industry, including those about dangerous housing conditions at labor camps and systemic wage theft. According to the Department of Labor, agriculture is the top low-wage, high-violation industry in the nation. 

Sometimes stories of horrific abuse break through to the public. In 2021, the nation was shocked to learn details of “Operation Blooming Onion.” Trafficked migrant workers were ensnared in what U.S. government officials called “modern-day slavery” on southern Georgia farms, where victims were forced to dig for onions with their bare hands under the threat of gun violence. As appalling as the details were, crimes of labor trafficking, extreme wage theft, and passport confiscation all frequently occur as part of the agricultural guest worker program. 

Decades of data from government agencies, advocacy organizations, and academic institutions back up these stories from the field. Farmworkers suffer extreme health disparities due to the brutal, repetitive, fast-paced outdoor work they perform in extreme temperatures under harsh conditions that include pesticide exposure and high risk of heatstroke.

When I first started my investigation in fall 2021, well-meaning colleagues offered unsolicited advice about how difficult it would be to find farmworkers willing to go on the record. I was repeatedly told that farmworker communities are notoriously hard to build trust in. “They won’t speak to media,” one editor warned me. “They’re afraid of journalists,” a reporter friend said. I came to parrot these lines myself—and admittedly, the first several months of reporting were hard. I had particular trouble finding H-2A workers to speak to, but I soon learned it’s not because migrant farmworkers are unwilling to make their voices heard. These workers are hard to reach because of the nature of their work. Farmworkers are also fully aware of the consequences of speaking to a reporter—employers of H-2A workers can covertly blacklist them from being able to legally work in the U.S. Retaliatory employers have threatened undocumented farmworkers with immigration enforcement for detailing wage theft and other abuses. More often than not, these workers choose to speak out anyway. 

Once I was tapped in, one worker led to another. I tuned in to a chorus of voices and an avalanche of stories. There was no way to ignore farmworkers’ decades-long fight to be heard. In recent years alone, they have inspired berry boycotts and changed the face of labor organizing through efforts like the Milk With Dignity Program and the Fair Food Program. In Florida, they marched 45 miles to demand that companies such as Publix, Wendy’s, and Kroger provide farmworkers with better working conditions and wages. In California, farmworkers marched 335 miles to the state capital to urge the governor to sign a bill that would have made it easier for them to vote in unions. 

The appalling injustices farmworkers experience in the U.S. are not the result of a few bad apples in the agricultural industry. Their mistreatment is cemented into law by way of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which denies agricultural workers the bare minimum: a livable wage and overtime pay, while failing to mandate access to shade and water. These racist exclusions from basic labor protections have literally cost farmworkers their lives. But when their co-workers die in the fields from thirst and heat exposure, they protest. They strike. Farmworkers fight back. 

The most important public data we have about abuse in the agricultural industry exists because farmworkers risked it all to speak truth to power. The media’s portrayal of farmworkers as meek, scared, and hiding in the shadows flies in the face of what they have shown us: an unquenchable thirst for justice and a deep, abiding hunger for accountability—two things that have been denied to them for far too long. 

Until we truly reckon with the almighty agricultural industry that abuses our farmworkers with impunity, there can be no future where agriculture miraculously saves us from the damage already wrought on our agrifood systems. Without significant steps to ensure dignity and safety for the workers who nourish us—hundreds of thousands of whom come to the U.S. each year as part of a federal program that functions as a form of indentured servitude—we are doomed to continue perpetuating these cycles of harm.

Tina Vasquez wrote this article for Yes! Magazine.