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By Todd Post
The U.S. food system—like national food systems everywhere—employs some of the lowest paid, lowest status workers in society. None typify this more than the farmworkers who pick fruits and vegetables and are among the unsung heroes of the food system.
Farm work is difficult under any circumstances, picking crops from sun up to sun down, bent over much of the time, exposed to sweltering heat and toxic chemicals.
America’s farmworkers are not only unsung heroes of the food system—they suffer some of the worst abuses and indignities. Farm work is mostly hidden from the public eye. Employers can violate labor laws and reasonably expect that those violations will never be detected. As a result, farmworkers are disproportionately victims of a range of labor violations, from shorted wages to sexual violence and even slavery.
About half of all farmworkers are undocumented. Negotiating with an exploitive employer is risky when it could so easily result in deportation.
In 2020, the federal government designated farmworkers as “essential workers,” exposing them not only to COVID-19, but other risks. As fires raged across the West, farmworkers put their bodies on the line to continue harvesting crops and prevent disruptions to the nation’s food supply.
President Biden has proposed a roadmap to citizenship for undocumented farmworkers, acknowledging the invaluable contributions they make to society and the economy. Under the president’s plan, undocumented farmworkers would be eligible for green cards at once—and after three years could apply to become citizens.
It is long overdue appreciation and a just reward for their greater sacrifices born out of COVID-19.
But citizenship by itself won’t put an end to labor violations and human rights abuses that go unchecked in farm labor. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, charged with enforcing fair labor standards and punishing violators, is underfunded and understaffed; so if President Biden is committed to real improvements for all farmworkers, he must lead the charge and call for full accountability of employers exploiting the nation’s farmworkers.
Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor at Bread for the World Institute.
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