National Farmworker Awareness Week (March 24-31) concludes on Cesar Chavez Day, which commemorates the legacy of one of the most influential activists in American history. In the United States, more than 2 million men and women work on farms, providing the fruit, vegetables, and other crops that feed consumers around the world. Unfortunately, those same consumers often overlook farmworkers and their contributions.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked the agriculture industry as one of the most hazardous workplaces in the U.S. While in the fields, farmworkers are at risk for both fatal and nonfatal injuries, lung and skin diseases, and certain cancers associated with chemical use and prolonged sun exposure. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor reported at least one farmworker death per day, as well as hundreds of injuries due to work-related accidents—an injury rate 20 percent higher than that of the private industry.
Farmworkers are typically socioeconomically vulnerable immigrants with low levels of formal education. They receive low wages—in 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that agricultural workers earn an average annual income of US$18,910—and one-quarter of the farmworker population live below the national poverty line. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, almost half of farmworkers lack work authorization, which, in addition to deficient resources, has created a population with little power to speak for themselves.
As a Mexican-American migrant worker, Cesar Chavez spent his career empowering his fellow farmworkers. Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 (now the United Farm Workers), and organized protests, marches, and boycotts to demand improvements in the treatment and economic status of farmworkers. In a 1984 speech to the Commonwealth Club of California, Chavez declared his vision to “overthrow a farm labor system in this nation which treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings.”
Despite Chavez’s impact, the struggle for improved farm working conditions continues, and has been the subject of recent revelatory films. The 2014 documentary Food Chains offers an inside look at the hurdles facing a group of Florida farmworkers as they take on the US$4 trillion global supermarket industry. The short film Pesticide Lake reveals the tragic consequences of toxic pesticide use on those working in fields.
Organizations like Farmworker Justice, the Farmworker Advocacy Network, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee work to further Chavez’s vision. Not only do these groups combat issues facing farmworkers, but they provide ways for consumers to take action and encourage fair treatment of those whose toil brings food from the field to the kitchen.