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labor workers mexican family

The history of farmworkers in the United States, as well as their current situation and their future prospects, reflects the complex ways in which labor-force dynamics interact with social classification systems to shape the intertwined and often-confused concepts of “race,”“ethnicity,”and “national origin.”In a global context, trans-national migrants are almost always on the lowest tier of the economic ladder. In the United States, most farm-workers have historically been economically and politically disadvantaged, not so often as a consequence of their being racial minorities, but more because of their status as unauthorized immigrants. However, the high association between farm work and certain racial-ethnic minorities has reinforced negative racial views of these groups and often supported stereotypes about their abilities and employment preferences.

The relationship between farm-labor market dynamics and the farmworkers’ quasi-racial identity as the lowest-ranking occupational group in U.S. society is systematic, paradoxical, and in no sense accidental. Agribusiness representatives argue that immigrants are “naturally”more motivated or more productive than native-born workers. But the most recently arrived transnational migrant farmworkers are, in fact, remarkably unproductive, primarily because they have had no prior experience in contemporary labor-intensive large-scale agriculture. They are simply more easily exploitable because they will accept wages and working conditions that workers with other options will not consider. Mexican immigrants’ experience in using extended family and social networks to secure employment in a highly unstable labor market allows them to navigate in an environment that is daunting to native-born Americans accustomed to more formal processes for securing and keeping a job.


While the ethnic composition of the U.S. farmworker population is always changing, an unchanging reality is that the agricultural workplace is largely exempt from the framework of labor laws that protect mainstream workers. Farmworkers were initially excluded from the protection of the Fair Labor Standards Act when it was passed in 1938. Subsequent legislative “fixes”intended to bring the “rule of law”to the agricultural workplace have been undermined by an immigration policy crafted to allow continued influxes of unauthorized Mexican and Guatemalan migrant farmworkers while simultaneously effectively stripping these workers of human and labor rights.

While immigration status constrains the ability of farmworkers to organize to demand improvements in wages or working conditions, progress has been made in some cases. In 2005, for example, a national campaign by a Florida farmworker group resulted in an increase of a penny per pound in piece-rate wages for harvesting tomatoes. This was a 70 percent increase over their former earnings of 50 cents per 35-pound bucket.

The heavy reliance on farm labor contractors for recruiting, supervising, and serving as the employer of record for at least one out of every five farmworkers also distances agricultural producers from accountability for sub-standard working conditions and the irregular supervision of their workforce. Farmworkers employed by labor contractors have lower earnings and worse working conditions than any other subgroup in the agricultural labor market.

Although most farm labor contractors are themselves former farmworkers, they reject traditional Mexican norms of mutual reciprocity and consistently emphasize the rules of a market economy in order to justify a variety of exploitative practices, including overcharging workers for food, lodging, and drink, and in extreme cases employing a form of indentured servitude to assure that immigrants are unable to pay their debts to the coyotes or raiteros (immigrant smugglers) who helped them cross the border and find employment.


The rapid increase in the size of the farm labor force is closely linked to the evolution of the U.S. food production and distribution system and the twentieth-century transformation of a rural economy of small family farms into increasingly larger agribusiness enterprises. As farm production unit size increased and as food distribution systems evolved, more and more farms turned to the fruit, vegetable, and horticultural production, which characteristically has sharp spikes in labor demand. Employers’ labor recruitment strategy has always rested on attracting a surplus pool of underemployed migrant and seasonal workers. Although there have been significant technology-driven decreases in labor demand, these have been offset by rapidly increasing market demand for fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as increases in nursery and horticultural production.


In his classic study Factories in the Fields (1939), the social historian Carey McWilliams detailed the successive waves of different ethnic groups of farmworkers who worked in California fields from the late nineteenth century up until World War II, including Chinese, Indian, Filipino, and Japanese workers. Because California accounts for almost half of the nation’s labor-intensive agriculture, this pattern has helped shape the composition of the entire U.S. farm labor force, though there are regional variations. In the East and the Midwest, for example, there was heavy reliance on eastern European immigrants as farm laborers, while African-American workers predominated in the Southeast. The famous Farm Security Administration photographic documentation of migrant workers in the 1940s include, in addition to Dust Bowl migrants from Oklahoma, African-American sugar cane harvesters in south Florida, Polish carrot harvesters in New Jersey, Greek farmworkers in California, and Mexicans in South Texas.

In more recent years, there have been brief influxes of refugees from other areas of the world, including Haitians who came to work in south Florida in the early 1980s. Likewise, Russian “Old Believers,”who initially settled in China and Brazil, migrated to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the 1970s and 1980s. But these workers rapidly moved on to other types of employment. Mayan refugees from the genocidal civil war in Guatemala during the 1970s and early 1980s are one of the important ethnic groups who entered the U.S. farm labor force as the result of civil unrest, and many of them have continued to work in farm work. They are now an important part of the “Eastern Migrant Stream”of labor-intensive agricultural production stretching from Florida up to the Delmarva Peninsula.


Although U.S. agriculture has always relied on immigrant workers of diverse ethnicities, Mexican immigrant workers have, at least since the 1950s, been the most important single ethnic group in the farm labor force. As early as 1935, the famous DiGiorgio farms in southern California relied heavily on workers recruited in Mexico (although by the late 1930s there were also Yemenis, U.S.-born Dust Bowl migrants [“Okies”], and Filipinos).

In the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, immigrant workers from northeastern Mexico were crucial to the establishment of a huge citrus production industry. While south Texas’s history as a racially diverse “borderlands”region stems from the beginning of the twentieth century, the history of racism and farmworkers is, in Texas (and elsewhere), linked to the development of large-scale agri-business. By the 1950s, Mexican migrant farmworker crews from “the Valley”had joined the local African-American farmworkers in the labor-intensive Florida citrus harvest. The era of the long-haul Texas-based migrant crews of family workers began to draw to a close in the early 1960s, when the mechanization of cotton and sugar-beet harvesting created gaps in their follow-the-crop itinerary.

The influx of Mexican migrants into U.S. farm work was fueled by the Bracero Program, which was instituted in 1942 as a means to counter labor shortages resulting from World War II. Although the program had justified the enlistment of farm hands, and the movement of some into war production industries such as shipbuilding (which drew large numbers of African-American workers out of field work), the actual recruitment of Mexican farmworkers peaked in 1956 with 445,000 guest workers. The Bracero Program did a great deal to institutionalize Mexico-U.S. migration, especially from the “core migrant-sending region”of Jalisco, Michoacan, and Guanajuato.

Large numbers of Mexican indigenous migrants from Oaxaca, first recruited to work in labor-intensive tomato and cotton production in northwestern Mexico and Baja, California, began working in California and Oregon in the early 1980s. Most of this new wave of indigenous migrant farmworkers are of Mixtec origin, but the farmworker population has become increasingly diverse. Other important ethnic groups from the Oaxacan village migration networks working in U.S. agriculture in the early twenty-first century include Triquis, Zapotecs, Amuzgos, and Chatinos. The U.S. farmworker population also includes Purepecha from central Michoacan, Otomi from the states of Hidalgo and San Luis Potosi, and Nahuas from the state of Guerrero.

The increasing ethnic diversity of the U.S. farmworker population, and the reliance on Spanish as the lingua franca in the workplace and rural agricultural communities (set against a background of “racial”discrimination against indios in Mexico and Guatemala), has led to an emerging sense of pan-indigenous identity in the context of U.S.farmworker life. This shift has increased. Traditionally, in their home villages, indigenous-origin migrants felt closely bound to members of their own family, extended family, their spouse’s family, and fellow villagers. These bonding ties obligated them to help each other even when they, themselves, were in difficult straits, and facilitated collective action within their own social network. Commonalities of migration experiences have come to outweigh years of historical conflict among indigenous villages, creating “bridging”social capital, which cuts across home country networks based on a newly defined identity as indigenous peoples. Consequently, even some ethnic groups that were at odds in their home country are closely allied in the United States, and some may even think of themselves as paisanos .


There are currently about 2.5 million farmworkers in the U.S. (including fruit, nut, and vegetable processing and packing but excluding meat packing and forestry workers) and perhaps 1.0 to 1.5 million non-working family members in farmworker households. The National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS) provides long-term trend data on the changing demographic composition of the farmworker population. The most recent tabulations are from 2001–2002. According to NAWS, two-thirds of U.S. farmworkers are Mexican or Central American immigrants (62% from Mexico and 4% from Central America [mostly Guatemala]). The majority are limited in English, with 30 percent speaking no English and 29 percent speaking it only “a little.”Most have worked in the U.S. for less than ten years.

The average farmworker is seriously underemployed, only managing to find thirty-two weeks of agricultural employment and earning about $10,000 annually. Less than one-quarter (24%) have health insurance, and only about one-third (36%) believe they would be eligible for unemployment insurance.

Since the mid-1990s, less than one-quarter of the farm labor force have been women, but since 2001 the proportion of women working in farm work has begun to increase again as the number of family workers has grown and the proportion of young, solo, “shuttle migrant”workers has decreased, probably as a result of payments to coyotes for border crossing increasing to about 20 percent of a typical farmworkers’ average annual earnings. The lives of women working in farm work are difficult, as most bear primary responsibility for childrearing and housekeeping, in addition to farm work. Complaints of sexual harassment are also common, and finding adequate (or any) childcare is a constant problem. Living conditions are typically very crowded and housing is substandard. While farmers used to provide migrants with free, on-farm housing, in the early twenty-first century only 22 percent receive this benefit.

Farnsworth, Philo Taylor (1906-1971) [next]

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