More and more, people are noticing how new and innovative technology is affecting our lives.  We share testimonials of abundance, opportunity, prosperity and change that are thanks, in part, to the profusion of technological breakthroughs of our time.  We witness the existing methods and modes of production being replaced with state-of-the-art technology, an age of true enlightenment and progress.  Oh, what a time to be alive!

This narrative, for many, is among the defining characteristics of our time.  It’s what distinguishes our place in history from all others.  Never before have we witnessed such phenomena.  Or have we?

The truth is that humans have been experiencing progress and change for millennia, and industrial revolution and upheaval have been the norm for centuries.  As Margaret Thatcher said, “There might be new technology, but technological progress itself is nothing new.”  So, as advances in technology continue to transform the world around us, keep in mind that we have been here many times before.


Heavy machinery on the road in Texas


The British Agricultural Revolution

In 1701, the seed drill was first introduced to farmers in Europe.  This mechanical device was designed to distribute seeds with consistent space and depth.  It would replace the task of scattering, or broadcasting, seeds throughout the soil, a method that would produce an inconsistent and disorganized yield that was difficult for farmers to maintain.  By the end of the century, the horse-drawn seed drill had been integrated with traditional farming and other developments in farming techniques, including crop rotation, selective breeding and improved land maintenance, and changes to property rights had revolutionized the standards of living, the economy, and patterns of production and consumption among a changing population.

In fact, until about 1750, the majority of Europe’s citizenry lived and worked in the country making a living through subsistence farming. These events preceded and played in to the Industrial Revolution.



A worker waits for a bus on a dirt road in New Mexico


Industrial Revolution

As humans moved out of the 18th and into the 19th century, new farming technology improved productivity which increased yield and a surplus of food which could, in turn, support more people than ever. A larger and well-fed population began to desert townships and villages for cities and industrial settings. The labor force shifted from the demand for rural farmers to a need for urban factory workers.

Living conditions changed, though whether they changed for better or worse is still up for debate.  The labor force transformed to provide the emerging free trade and capitalist economy with a healthy supply of workers.  Women and children, sources of cheap and exploitative labor, began working in mills, factories, and farms.  An estimated 20,000 apprentices were employed in cotton mills, often children less than age 10, in 1800.  A fifth of the cotton mills’ workforce were children less than 13 years old a decade later, according to Parliament statistics.

Workers were subject to long and intense work days, upwards of 16 hours per day. Oftentimes denied break, they were forced to work long days for minimal pay. Lacking bargaining rights, these workers were often overworked and underpaid with no recourse.

According to a commissioned report by the House of Commons in 1832, “workers are often abandoned from the moment that an accident occurs; their wages are stopped, no medical attendance is provided, and whatever the extent of the injury, no compensation is afforded.”

A dirt path in the agricultural hinterlands of Puerto Rico

Since then, countless labor rights organizations, grassroots campaigns, demonstrators, and lawmakers have organized to establish the basic rights of workers.  Various regulations and standards were introduced to combat the dangerous working conditions, beginning with the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1802, which called for improved working conditions among child laborers.

Unfortunately, the uphill battle persists, particularly for farmworkers, who were excluded from hard-won labor laws in the early 19th century – most notably, the Fair Labor Standards Act.  As a result, even in 2019, most farmworkers are still not guaranteed basic labor rights, like the 5-day work week, overtime pay, and the right to strike or collectively bargain.  As a matter of fact, New York state just passed a law awarding farmworkers some of those rights, but not without a loud outcry from employers who said they feared economic ruin now that they have to pay overtime to farmworkers after 60 hours and give them one day off a week.

But AFOP Health & Safety believes that farmworkers deserve MORE protection throughout their workday, not less.  Agriculture is one of the most dangerous jobs one can do, with the added dangers of heat stress, pesticide exposure, and heavy machinery that many people just are not adequately prepared for when they come to work on any given day.  That’s why we continue to preserve the dignity of the farmworker through training, support, and outreach efforts, supplying farmworkers with the tools they need to navigate the fields safely, as well as the knowledge to protect themselves against an unwanted destiny.


Click here for more information on our health and safety programs.
Additional resources:

Jordan: ag

Industrial & agricultural revolution

Population growth


Annals of ag