Somewhere between one and three million migrant farmworkers are planting, cultivating, harvesting, and packing produce in the United States. According the latest National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), that farm workforce is predominantly composed of immigrants. The NAWS estimates that 73% of farm laborers are immigrants: 95% of Mexican descent, 4% originating from Central America, and 1% from other regions like South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and the Pacific Islands.
An immigrant workforce in agriculture is nothing new for the United States; the phenomenon dates back to the 1600s when indentured servants were promised passage from England in exchange for their labor in the fields. However, they were soon replaced with captured African people who would become slaves to work the American fields. Almost 50 years later, at the end of the Mexican-American War, an influx of migrant workers freely crossed the southern border of the U.S. for temporary jobs, afterwards returning home.
Following the end of the Civil War up to the Reconstruction Era, few black people were given the chance to make a living outside of agriculture and domestic work due to discriminatory laws. Nevertheless, California began to flourish as an agricultural epicenter as it imported the majority of farm laborers from Asia. By the end of the 1930s, that labor force began to wane and was replaced by Mexican workers. The Bracero Program began and, although it lasted only around 3 decades, immigrants from Latin America continue to form the majority of the agricultural workforce in the U.S.
As the statistics show, today’s farmworkers are predominantly of Mexican descent. The U.S. has essentially transitioned from a black to a brown agricultural workforce, while sadly many of the conditions remain the same. And, despite how or where farmworkers arrived from, the bottom line is that low pay and mistreatment continue to pervade the industry. This country was built by immigrants and continues to grow as a result of those hard-working individuals trying to make a better way for themselves and their families. Though the face of the farmworker has changed, the dignity they deserve remains undiminished.
So, as we approach National Farmworker Awareness Week (NFAW) at the end of this month, I urge you to explore the history of farmworkers in the U.S. – beginning with the sources linked below. Take this chance to think about where you and I would be without farmworkers, and what you can do to support your local farmworker community.
AFOP Health & Safety invites everyone to celebrate NFAW with us through our National Long-Sleeve Shirt Drive: collecting light-colored long-sleeve shirts all across the country to donate to farmworkers. Find a list of your state’s drop-off locations HERE and use your unwanted clothes to help farmworkers combat damaging pesticide and sun exposure.