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Improving Working Conditions for U.S. Farmworkers and Food Production Workers

  • Date: Nov 07 2017
  • Policy Number: 20177

Key Words:


Four million workers in the United States are involved in farming and industrial production of food from animal protein. These individuals, many of whom are women and people of color, play a vital role in helping to meet the public health goal of ensuring an accessible supply of nutritious food. Yet many of these individuals are not paid livable wages, they work in hazardous conditions and face discrimination, and some are excluded from certain labor law protections. A sustainable food system must integrate just and equitable labor practices along with the goals of food safety, accessibility, environmental protection, and animal welfare. Health disparities among farmworkers and food production workers can be addressed through policies ensuring that labor laws are extended to farmworkers, labor standards are enforced by government agencies, employers comply with worker safety and wage laws, firms involved in crop production and animal protein processing adopt equitable labor practices, and businesses integrate equitable labor practices into their corporate sustainability programs.

Relationship to Existing APHA Policy Statements 

  • APHA Policy Statement 201110: Ending Agricultural Exceptionalism: Strengthening Worker Protection in Agriculture Through Regulation, Enforcement, Training, and Improved Worksite Health and Safety
  • APHA Policy Statement 20167: Improving Health by Increasing the Minimum Wage
  • APHA Policy Statement 20114: Musculoskeletal Disorders as a Public Health Concern
  • APHA Policy Statement 200712: Toward a Healthy Sustainable Food System
  • APHA Policy Statement 20068: Resolution on the Right for Employee Free Choice to Form Unions
  • APHA Policy Statement 20054: Occupational Health and Safety Protections for Immigrant Workers
  • APHA Policy Statement 20136: Support for Paid Sick Leave and Family Leave Policies
  • APHA Policy Statement 20108: Requiring Clinical Diagnostic Tools and Biomonitoring of Exposures to Pesticides 

 Problem Statement

More than 4 million workers in the United States are directly involved in tending crops and livestock, picking and packaging produce, and slaughtering and processing meat, poultry, and seafood.[1] These individuals, referred to throughout this policy statement as farmworkers and food production workers, are essential to meeting the public health goal of ensuring an accessible supply of nutritious food. Yet, in the case of many of these workers, their job adversely affects their health. Most are paid low wages, and they suffer high rates of work-related fatalities and injuries. Many face discrimination and exploitation because of their race, ethnicity, and/or immigration status, and some are excluded altogether from certain labor law protections. Currently, working conditions for farmworkers and food production workers contribute to health disparities. As expressed in APHA policies, a sustainable food system must be grounded in safe working conditions, fair wages, and human rights protections for individuals employed in agriculture and food production.

Fatality, injury, and illness rates: Workers employed in food production jobs are exposed to a wide range of serious hazards. For example, workers on dairy farms and in hog growing operations are at risk of being injured by charging or kicking animals and by contact with heavy machinery[2], workers who handle livestock and poultry are at increased risk of zoonotic diseases[3], and those who tend and harvest crops often suffer heat-related illness,[4] pesticide poisoning,[5] and chronic back and shoulder injuries from bending, reaching, and lifting.[6] Workers employed in seafood, poultry, pork, and beef slaughtering and packaging suffer from lacerations and amputations, infections and exposure to antibiotic-resistant pathogens,[7,8] and musculoskeletal disorders caused by intense repetitive work.[9,10] Exposure to such hazards results in high injury and fatality rates among U.S. workers employed in these industries.

The rate of fatal work-related injuries among agricultural workers is seven times higher than the rate among workers overall and two times higher than that for construction workers and those employed in the mining industry.[11,12] In addition, the rate of nonfatal work-related injuries is significantly higher among workers in food production jobs, particularly with respect to incidents requiring days away from work or restricted duty (DART).[11] The meatpacking and poultry industries rank among the U.S. industries with the highest rates of work-related injuries and illnesses, with DART rates in these industry sectors  at 7.8 per 100 workers and 4.6 per 100 workers, respectively, as compared with the national rate of 1.7.

Work-related injuries, illnesses, and disability are costly to businesses, communities, governments, workers, and workers’ families. The annual cost of work-related injuries, illnesses, and fatalities in the United States, including productivity losses, is estimated to be $250 billion. With workers’ compensation covering less than 25% of these costs, all members of society share the burden.[13] As a result, families and taxpayers subsidize the majority of the lost income and medical care costs generated by work-related injuries and illnesses.[14]

Economic insecurity: Income is a critical social determinant of health. It affects individuals’ and families’ ability to meet the basic needs of safe housing, food, child care, transportation, and health care.[15] The hourly wage for meat, poultry, and fish processing workers ranges from $9 to $16, with 50% of the individuals employed in these occupations earning less than $25,000 per year.[16] In 2013–2014, the average wage reported by farmworkers was $9.71 per hour. Thirty percent of farmworkers had family incomes below the federal poverty level.[17]

Depending on the industry sector, the size of the employer, and the presence of a union, some food production workers have access to employer-provided health insurance and paid sick leave, but many do not. In 2014, for example, only 22% of farmworkers reported having health insurance. Although most workers employed by the major U.S. meat and poultry processing firms are provided health insurance, most do not have the benefit of paid sick leave.[18,19]

Workers in certain agricultural jobs are paid according to the amount of product harvested. This system may result in a higher weekly wage for some, but it encourages an intense pace of work that involves repetitive tasks, heavy loads, and other risk factors for injuries.[20] For instance, one study showed that Latina farmworkers who were employed under piece-rate contracts were five times more likely to report an injury than those who did not work in a piece-rate system.[21] The piece-rate system fosters discriminatory practices and inequality[22] and can be abused by employers and supervisors to defraud workers of the wages they are due.[23] Farmworkers consistently report that the only way to increase and ensure the use of safety equipment will be switching from the piece-rate system to an hourly wage rate.[19]  

Jobs with low wages and the lack of employer-provided health insurance and paid leave put a strain on social safety net programs.[24] In a Labor Department survey of agricultural workers, only 14% reported having employer-sponsored health insurance, while 37% reported that their family used government-provided health insurance.[16]

Exclusion from labor protections: There is a long history of agricultural jobs in the United States being excluded from labor protections, including Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, minimum wage and overtime protections, collective bargaining rights, and workers’ compensation insurance.[25] For more than four decades, Congress, through its annual appropriations process, has specifically prohibited OSHA from enforcing any regulations targeting farming operations that employ 10 or fewer workers. Of the more than 100 safety and health regulations adopted by OSHA, only six address hazards specific to agriculture.  Moreover, despite high injury and fatality rates among farmworkers, at least 15 states do not require agricultural employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance.[26] 

Regulatory protection of agricultural workers from pesticide exposures is the responsibility of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS) is one of the few occupational health and safety regulations administered by the agency and its designated state regulatory agencies. The EPA revised and strengthened the WPS in 2015 in an effort to achieve parity in regulatory protection for agricultural workers, requiring annual pesticide safety training, notification of pesticide applications, use of personal protective equipment, restricted-entry intervals after pesticide applications, decontamination supplies, and emergency medical assistance. The standard also prohibits pesticide application and early reentry by workers younger than 18 years. In January 2017, EPA published a separate regulation, the Certification of Pesticide Applicators, to improve protections for those who handle, mix, and apply restricted-use pesticides. However, the EPA announced a delay in the effective date for the regulation, influenced perhaps by opposition from some grower organizations, regulators, and pesticide registrants (although this is being contested in court).

Discrimination and exploitation: Agricultural and food production employers rely heavily on immigrants and people of color for their workforce.[27–29] Eighty percent of farmworkers in 2014 self-identified as Hispanic, with about two thirds reporting being born in Mexico. These workers are largely non–English speaking, and nearly half are not authorized to work in the United States.[16,30] 

More than 50% of the U.S. dairy workforce is made up of immigrants and refugees.[31] In the top two U.S. dairy-producing states, New York and Wisconsin, more than 75% of dairy workers are from Mexico or Guatemala.[32] In meatpacking and poultry processing, 34% of the workforce is Hispanic, which is more than twice the share of Hispanics in the overall workforce.[33] Refugees from Somalia, Burma, Egypt, and elsewhere are also often employed at meat and poultry plants.[34,35] More than 60% of workers involved in seafood processing, including fish trimming, crab picking, and seafood canning, are foreign-born individuals,[36] including Asian/Pacific Islanders and immigrants from Vietnam, the Philippines, and the Marshall Islands.

Some farmworkers and food production workers are authorized for employment in the United States under the H-2A and H-2B visa programs (these individuals are referred to as “guest workers”). Historically, the jobs covered through these programs have involved laborers tending to and picking crops, but employers in the seafood, poultry, beef, pork, and dairy industries also rely on the programs. As a result of their low wages and harsh working conditions, these jobs are inferior to those held by individuals with other employment options.[37] Because guest workers are tied to a specific employer, they do not have the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. Investigations by government agencies, journalists, and human rights groups have shown that many individuals with H-2A and H-2B visas are exploited by their employers.[38]

Workers in agricultural and food production occupations are at risk of depressive symptoms and other behavioral health disorders because of low job control and high job strain.[39,40] The high levels of economic stress and employment insecurity they face also have implications for their mental health.[41,42]

Unions serve as a mechanism for workers to negotiate with employers to provide livable wages, health benefits, and safe working conditions. Unions have a positive effect on both unionized workers and non-union workers with respect to wages, fringe benefits, pay inequality, and working conditions.[43] The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights maintains that “everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” U.S. farmworkers, however, are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, and thus it is nearly impossible for them to bargain with employers about working conditions. There are certain exceptions (e.g., California, Oregon, Washington) where state laws allow those working in agriculture to unionize. Lack of union representation and protection can result in vulnerable workers remaining silent in the face of exploitation and continuing to work in unsafe conditions.

Evidence-Based Interventions and Strategies

APHA supports measures designed to advance health equity by addressing social determinants of health. Livable wages and benefits, freedom from discrimination and obstacles to joining a labor union, and safe workplaces are key factors in reducing health disparities.[17] Some of the interventions addressing these factors are described below.

Workers on farms and in the food production industry are exposed to a range of health and safety hazards that cause injuries and illnesses. The means to eliminate these hazards are well known and proven effective. Programs assisting employers are available from industry associations as well as state and federal government programs. Some employers have the knowledge, technical expertise, and resources to address hazards yet fail to do so. In these instances, enforcement by state and federal OSHA programs is effective in reducing injuries and increasing compliance with safety regulations.[44,45] 

Since the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1970, fatality rates have fallen dramatically, from 18 fatalities per 100,000 workers during that year to 3.4 per 100,000 workers in 2015. More than 553,000 workers’ lives have been saved since the passage of that legislation, which promised workers in this country the right to a safe job.[46] 

OSHA standards and enforcement of them have been effective in preventing work-related disability, death, and lost productivity. For example, a 1990s OSHA enforcement program targeted meatpacking plants because of high injury rates, particularly for musculoskeletal injuries caused by ergonomic hazards. At several of the largest meatpacking plants, the firms made significant improvements to address the hazards identified. The interventions were enforced as corporate-wide settlements requiring the establishment of joint labor/management committees, regular audits to identify safety and ergonomic hazards and eliminate them, and worker training. During the period of time when this special OSHA program was in place, the estimated rate of injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time workers declined from 29.5 in 1992 to 14.7 in 2001.[47]

A number of strategies have been adopted to integrate equitable labor practices into sustainable food programs and initiatives. Employers that do so indicate that these policies increase productivity, create economic resiliency, and generate brand loyalty.[48] The Equitable Food Initiative, for example, is a partnership of farmworker groups, businesses, and social justice organizations that has developed labor standards and training programs for the mutually beneficial goals of improving working conditions and producing safer food. Participating farms supply companies including Costco and Whole Foods and have adopted equitable labor practices throughout their global supply chains. These farms are audited by third parties, with input from workers, to ensure conformance with the initiative’s labor, food safety, and pest management principles.

The United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) announced in 2016 their commitment to creating an environment where their products could be grown and sourced responsibly. The PMA’s policy statement acknowledges the balance between excessive work hours and a safe and healthy work environment. Farmworker and consumer engagement encouraged the PMA to include within its sustainability statement a commitment to treat farmworkers with dignity and respect.[49]

An example of a localized initiative is the Los Angeles Food Policy Council (LAFPC), a successful effort by community partners to advance the mission of building a good food system for all of Los Angeles. Its goals include sustainable agriculture and fair working conditions for all food workers as well as ensuring access to healthy, affordable food in underserved neighborhoods. The LAFPC developed a metric that relies on quantitative and qualitative data to evaluate progress in achieving the council’s goals. The LAFPC definition of “fair food” notes that, “at every point in the food supply chain, workers should receive fair compensation regardless of their ethnicity, age, gender, ability and documentation status and be free from exploitation.”[50]

Consumers also have been engaged directly in efforts with agricultural workers to pressure firms to pay living wages and improve working conditions. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) organized a campaign to secure a modest increase in pay for the tomatoes they harvested. They targeted their efforts at the leading U.S. fast food chains and grocery stores that purchase tomatoes and relied on consumers to spread their demand for additional pay of a penny a pound. The CIW’s decades-long effort led to a model in which buyers pay a “fair food premium,” which growers pass on to workers as a bonus in their paychecks. During the period January 2011 through October 2015, farmworkers earned more than $20 million through the fair food premium.

Civil rights and immigrant labor organizations have challenged state laws that exclude agricultural workers from wage laws, collective bargaining, and workers’ compensation protections. In June 2016, for example, the state supreme court in New Mexico ruled in favor of farmworkers who argued that the highest court ruled in June 2016 that excluding farm and ranch laborers from the state’s workers’ compensation law is unconstitutional. In June 2017, the supreme court of New York heard arguments brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union to challenge state laws obstructing farmworkers’ right to organize.

Opposing Arguments

Traditionally, small businesses have asserted that government regulations are economically burdensome and infeasible. In the agriculture industry, they argue that farms are small, family-run businesses that cannot afford to pay livable wages, provide workers’ compensation insurance, or offer effective safety programs. They urge lawmakers to intervene when federal and state occupational safety and health agencies announce programs addressing safety and wage violations. State and national chambers of commerce are opposed to increases in the minimum wage and to “livable wage” campaigns. They argue that such policies result in job loss, stifle economic growth, and pass labor costs to customers through raising of prices. There is a segment of consumers, however, that responds favorably to companies with sustainable practices and is brand loyal. These consumers have demonstrated their willingness to pay a higher price for food items sold by firms with animal-welfare policies (e.g., cage-free eggs) and healthier food options (e.g., locally grown produce). 

The costs associated with higher wages, benefits in the area of food production, and increasing production expenses could be passed on to consumers, but these concerns should be not be afforded too much consideration in today’s labor climate. The poultry, meatpacking, and pork manufacturing industries, dominated by a handful of large national and multinational companies (e.g., Cargill, Tyson, and JBS), accommodate a high and constant turnover of employees by relying on more vulnerable workers, including African American women, Latino immigrants, and refugees. In fact, leaders in these industries have traditionally been able to keep wages low and offer no or few benefits, relying on a constant stream of incoming workers. However, the stream of immigrants and refugees is slowing down. Companies such as Tyson are beginning to recognize the value of improving labor practices, including paying higher wages, in retaining workers and thus are recognizing the value of becoming more “responsible” and perhaps more attractive employers.[51] The costs to employers of high turnover, in part due to the traditionally low wages in these industries, and high injury and illness rates are considerable. Improving labor practices, such as implementing ergonomic controls in poultry plants to reduce the high rates of musculoskeletal disorders, , one of the most common injuries in food production, could result in a return on investment to employers.[52]

Action Steps

APHA urges:

  1. Congress to eliminate language in OSHA’s annual appropriation that excludes small farms from OSHA oversight and pass legislation to cover farmworkers under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
  2. The EPA to fully implement and enforce the newly revised Worker Protection Standard and the revised Certification of Pesticide Applicators Rule. 
  3. OSHA and state OSHA programs to maintain strong enforcement of standards and a budget that reflects this commitment. 
  4. The U.S. Department of Labor and state agencies to increase oversight and enforcement of wage and hour violations by employers in the agriculture and food production industries. 
  5. OSHA to adopt a regulation that requires employers engaged in food production to address hazards associated with musculoskeletal injuries. 
  6. The U.S. Department of Agriculture to coordinate with OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in an analysis of the health impact of food safety regulations to ensure that these regulations do not adversely affect workers’ health. 
  7. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and OSHA to collaborate with the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians and district and state public health offices in addressing farmworkers’ and food production workers’ exposure to zoonotic diseases.
  8. Organizations involved in establishing metrics to evaluate the sustainability of businesses’ food production practices to include measures assessing the health impact of labor practices. Sustainable food initiatives and movements should be modeled after existing initiatives that include labor standards and fair working conditions. 
  9. Businesses involved in food production, including meat, poultry, and seafood processing, to integrate equitable labor practices into their corporate environmental sustainability programs. 
  10. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, food production businesses, and organizations involved in establishing metrics evaluating food production to increase consumer education and awareness regarding the human cost of food production as a way to incentivize meaningful consumption and recognition of workers. 
  11. State and local leaders to work to change state legislation that excludes agricultural workers from wage laws, collective bargaining, and workers’ compensation protections so that these inequities are eliminated and agricultural workers are afforded the same protections as other workers. 


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