Racism, Farmworkers & Family Farmers

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Agricultural workers in the United States suffer from an institutional racism reflected in discriminatory U.S. laws derived in an unbroken chain from the institution of slavery that characterized U.S. agriculture until 1865.

  • Farmworkers are the lowest paid occupational group in the United States, with the vast majority living below the poverty level.
  • Over one third own nothing more than what fits into their bags as they migrate from farm to farm.
  • Farmwork is one of the most hazardous occupations in the nation, with an accident and injury rate far higher than the average. Farmworkers are also exposed to toxic chemicals on a routine basis. Most farmworkers do not have access to adequate medical care, compounding the health risks they face on the job.
  • Ninety nine percent of all migrant farmworkers are members of an ethnic minority, the vast majority are Latino. Seventy to seventy five percent of the entire agricultural workforce (migrant and non-migrant) in the U.S. are members of racial minority groups.

The dismal socio-economic status of farmworkers in the U.S. is not a reflection of the inherent nature of agriculture, but rather it is the direct result of deliberate policy positions that have been enacted that grant farmworkers fewer rights and social benefits than any other occupation in the nation.

  • Farmworkers, together with domestic workers, are exempted from collective bargaining rights granted workers in all other industries by the National Labor Relations Act.
  • Farmworkers have fewer legal protections than other workers or are entirely exempt from a wide range of federal laws, including minimum wage, overtime, child labor, Social Security, and unemployment legislation.
  • U.S. laws pertaining to farmworkers violate many international human rights laws.

These policy injustices are steeped in a history of racism that dates back to the institution of slavery in the United States.

The majority of laws in the U.S. granting workers basic rights and establishing social programs to aid the poor were passed during the 1930´s under the New Deal agenda of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Agricultural workers and domestic workers were repeatedly exempted from these laws. Why?

In the 1930´s 85% of southern African Americans were farmworkers. Many members of the U.S. Congress refused to support FDR´s New Deal legislation if it granted rights and benefits to African Americans. Some Congressmen openly stated that they were “not in favor of social equality between the races”. And so as a result of political deal making, farmworkers and domestic workers were excluded from these laws “ a move which deliberately excluded almost two-thirds of African Americans nationwide.

Farm work and domestic work were dominated until recently by African American laborers as a direct legacy of the institution of slavery, in which Africans and their descendants had been forced to labor mainly as either “field slaves” or “house slaves”. Although the racial make-up of the agricultural work force has shifted from predominantly African American to predominantly Latino, it continues to be racial minorities that suffer as victims of this discrimination.

The welfare of small-scale family farmers is inextricably linked to the welfare of farmworkers, as it is the same economic and political forces that are keeping both groups in a perpetual state of “struggle to survive”.

In its report A Time to Act, the USDA National Commission on Small Farms recognized these anti-worker policies as subsidies to large scale agriculture to the detriment of small-scale family farmers. The report emphasized two points:

  • Small-scale farmers “cannot compete with large farms because they have access to cheap labor.”
  • “Ultimately, small farmers will earn fair incomes only if farmworkers on large farms are paid fair incomes.”

This points to the need not only for more dialogue and understanding between family farmers and farmworkers, but even more so a need for strategic alliances to be formed against corporate agricultural interests. This requires much more than an alliance of convenience due to the existence of “a common enemy”; it requires the promotion of an alternative economic model – that of sustainability. Such an alliance will require leaps of faith for many who are accustomed to animosity between farmers and farm labor, but the alternative is to continue to play by the rules written by corporate agriculture, a game that both workers and farmers are losing, and will continue to lose. This content was contributed by Richard Mandelbaum from CATA, The Farmworker Support Committee.

The facts and quotes presented here are derived primarily from the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Volume 29, Issues 1&2, Fall 1995 and Winter 1996; “Race Based Discrimination Against Farm Workers Under Federal Unemployment Insurance”, by Marc Linder and Laurence Norton.