Collecting data or documenting a specific group of people always brings its own set of challenges. However, those challenges become greater when the population is marginalized. As an active advocate with the farmworker community for over a decade, I’ve found a constant over the years: that statistics are few and far between for the farmworker population, and when they are available have definite shortcomings.
Funding is provided for programs or initiatives that address specific problems in the community by relying on information about what the problem is, and how bad. When data is insufficient or inaccurate it does not paint a complete picture, and in turn affects the services which may be offered.
From the start, there are discrepancies when it comes to classifying just whom we are talking about when we use the word ‘farmworker’. The definition is often disputed, which in turn make the gathering of an overall census of farmworkers nearly impossible. Looking at multiple definitions of ‘farmworker,’ it’s clear that they share vital elements related to type of work, length of employment, and moving between residences to engage in work.
But who’s definition do we use?
The definitions found in federal laws governing migrant health funds describe a migrant farmworker as, “an individual whose principal employment is in agriculture on a seasonal basis and who, for purposes of employment, establishes a temporary home.” The migration may be from farm to farm, within a state, interstate, or international. A seasonal farmworker is, “an individual whose principal employment is in agriculture on a seasonal basis and who does not migrate.”
Under the National Farmworker Jobs Program (NFJP), a farmworker is a person who is a migrant farmworker or seasonal farmworker and whose family is disadvantaged. And, a seasonal farmworker is “a farmworker who has been primarily employed in agricultural labor and that is characterized by chronic unemployment or underemployment.” The definitions continue to vary dependent upon the governing funding source.
Some gray areas are obvious. What about H-2A agricultural guest workers? What about farmworkers from Puerto Rico treated as guest workers but by definition are “domestic workers”? What category may they fit into or do we create a new category altogether?
Even if you manage to come to a consensus on whom we are speaking about when we say farmworker, there is no verifiable existing source on the number of farmworkers in the United States. Without standardization every organization uses their own figures based on their own criteria, which means every number is preceded by a qualifying statement such as “more than”, “an estimated”, “approximately” or “between” prior to giving the number of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the U.S.
Yes: there are those who are attempting to collect this valuable information, one being the United States Department of Labor through the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS). The NAWS is one of the best and most current sources available. However, it represents only a random sampling of U.S. crop workers and is limited by collecting data strictly through face-to-face interviews. Furthermore, it has its own set of limitations outside of those challenges attached to the farmworker population. (i.e. language, education, mobility, access, cultural differences, etc.).
AFOP Health & Safety is no stranger to the difficulties involved in gathering quantitative data and statistical information regarding the population of farmworkers with which we serve. Understanding the sheer number of farmworkers in the United States poses a sizeable feat in and of itself, coupled with the aforementioned characteristics of the farmworker population and agriculture as complicating factors.
So, what do we do?
Like many farmworker organizations AFOP Health & Safety collects the information it can – such as demographic information, migration patterns, technology usage, and behavioral changes – while fulfilling its other roles in the community. However, collectively, government agencies, nonprofits, health organizations, community leaders, and policymakers should come together to create a unified database of accessible information. Each of us has need for the information, but each of us provides a unique service to the farmworker community; standardization and unification would allow everyone to be a source and beneficiary of data.
What better way to overcome the challenges of insufficient data than to come together as one?