Feeding a nation of 300 million is tough work, and it rests largely on the shoulders of farmworkers and laborers. According to the National Center for Farmworker Health (NCFH), there are at least three million farmworkers in the United States. Most of them are migrant workers who face great hardships, including poverty, illiteracy, and poor health, as they try to make a living.
Farming is one of the most dangerous jobs—the Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies agriculture as having among the highest fatal occupational injuries. Workers perform backbreaking labor for long hours, often in an environment where they face exposure to pesticides and other agrochemicals, as well as potentially hazardous farm machinery. Migrant Health Promotion, a farmworker advocacy community, also notes that many workers live in cramped and unsanitary housing conditions and have little access to clean water. And an NCFH report shows that despite living and working in poor conditions, only about 800,000 workers sought healthcare from Migrant Health Centers in 2011.
A recent complaint filed with the United Nations by a 28-organization coalition, including Maryland Legal Aid, Farmworker Justice, and Polaris Project, argues that migrant workers in the United States are suffering from human rights violations. Landowners or farm operators often have the upper hand, threatening deportation or employment termination if workers don’t comply with their policies. Most migrant workers are foreign-born (72 percent by NCFH estimates) and many do not speak English fluently or have in-depth knowledge of their rights. This leads to a very imbalanced power relationship between landowners and workers. As Southern Migrant Legal Services attorney general, Caitlin Berberich, recently reported in the Huffington Post, landowners often chase advocates out of migrant worker camps, denying workers basic services such as medical care. Nathan Dollar, an advocate with Vecinos, Inc., a mobile medical outreach service, reports that police have chased his unit away, although they had the North Carolina’s attorney general’s permission to be there. “People should have access to health care,” he says. “My doctor doesn’t call my employer asking them if they can see me.”
Denying access to health care is a violation of one of the most basic of human rights. An Oxfam America report also mentions that some other human rights, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are frequently violated as well: the right to a fair wage, the right to work free from force, and the right to organize to protect their interests. The report calls the working conditions of migrant workers “modern-day slavery.”
The report entreats policymakers, saying that making sure migrant workers have access to basic legal, health, and educational services is essential to creating a more balanced relationship between landowners and workers. Healthy farmworkers produce more healthy food, which benefits everyone.