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When the First World War was declared, large numbers of men joined the services. By 1916 over 3,000,000 men had joined the army. In February 1916, all single men and childless widowers aged 18 to 41 were compulsory conscripted into the armed forces. The Government decided that more women would have to become more involved in producing food and goods to support their war effort. It was suggested that as a reward for their effort, women would be given he right to vote after the war. Over a 250,000 women became farm labourers during the war. However, in some areas, farmers were unwilling to employ women. In 1916 the Board of Trade began sending agricultural organising officers around the country in an effort to persuade farmers to accept women workers.
In June 1916, East Grinstead had a visit from Miss Bradley, Agricultural Organising Officer for the Board of Trade. She criticised local farmers for being prejudiced against women workers and warned that there would be food shortages if they did not employ more women.
At St. Michael's Parish Hall, Miss Bradley, agricultural organising officer for the Board of Trade, said that Sussex had been one of the best countries for recruiting for the army and navy, and she hoped that with the co-operation of the farmers it would occupy a similar position with regard to women working on the land and filling the places of the men who had gone to fight for their country. She knew that in Sussex there was a strong feeling against "foreigners", and therefore it was all the more necessary that women of Sussex should help in this movement, so that it would not be necessary to import female labour from other counties. She believed that the home grown food supply would be a quarter below the average that year. Women generally had responded splendidly to this call for service. The same could not hardly be said of the farmers, but she realised that there were difficulties and prejudices were being gradually overcome and that when farmers realised that women could do useful work they would accept their service more and more readily. Women were proving in many directions that they could perform useful work - in offices, in munition works, and she had even seen them assisting in tarring and repairing roads. On farms, too, they could be of great assistance they could do valuable work with weeding. Three pence an hour was the minimum wage for untrained helpers.
Women Farm Workers - History
Co-founder of the United Farm Workers Association, Dolores Clara Fernandez Huerta is one of the most influential labor activists of the 20 th century and a leader of the Chicano civil rights movement.
Born on April 10, 1930 in Dawson, New Mexico, Huerta was the second of three children of Alicia and Juan Fernandez, a farm worker and miner who became a state legislator in 1938. Her parents divorced when Huerta was three years old, and her mother moved to Stockton, California with her children. Huerta’s grandfather helped raise Huerta and her two brothers while her mother juggled jobs as a waitress and cannery worker until she could buy a small hotel and restaurant. Alicia’s community activism and compassionate treatment of workers greatly influenced her daughter.
Discrimination also helped shape Huerta. A schoolteacher, prejudiced against Hispanics, accused Huerta of cheating because her papers were too well-written. In 1945 at the end of World War II, white men brutally beat her brother for wearing a Zoot-Suit, a popular Latino fashion.
Huerta received an associate teaching degree from the University of the Pacific’s Delta College. She married Ralph Head while a student and had two daughters, though the couple soon divorced. She subsequently married fellow activist Ventura Huerta with whom she had five children, though that marriage also did not last. Huerta briefly taught school in the 1950s, but seeing so many hungry farm children coming to school, she thought she could do more to help them by organizing farmers and farm workers.
In 1955 Huerta began her career as an activist when she co-founded the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization (CSO), which led voter registration drives and fought for economic improvements for Hispanics. She also founded the Agricultural Workers Association. Through a CSO associate, Huerta met activist César Chávez, with whom she shared an interest in organizing farm workers. I n 1962, Huerta and Chávez founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), the predecessor of the United Farm Workers’ Union (UFW), which formed three year later. Huerta served as UFW vice president until 1999.
Despite ethnic and gender bias, Huerta helped organize the 1965 Delano strike of 5,000 grape workers and was the lead negotiator in the workers’ contract that followed. Throughout her work with the UFW, Huerta organized workers, negotiated contracts, advocated for safer working conditions including the elimination of harmful pesticides. She also fought for unemployment and healthcare benefits for agricultural workers. Huerta was the driving force behind the nationwide table grape boycotts in the late 1960s that led to a successful union contract by 1970.
In 1973, Huerta led another consumer boycott of grapes that resulted in the ground-breaking California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which allowed farm workers to form unions and bargain for better wages and conditions. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Huerta worked as a lobbyist to improve workers’ legislative representation. During the 1990s and 2000s, she worked to elect more Latinos and women to political office and has championed women’s issues.
The recipient of many honors, Huerta received the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 1998 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. As of 2015, she was a board member of the Feminist Majority Foundation, the Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus of the United Farm Workers of America, and the President of the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
Mulkern says she stewed on it over the winter. “By spring, I wanted to do more. I wondered if the rise in female farmers was happening just in this community or if it was a bigger trend, a shift in the industry.” A friend loaned her a professional camera, she spent a few days practicing in the garden, and her quest began.
“I happen to live in a bubble where the farms are smaller here in western Washington. There’s not a lot of land access, and it’s very expensive to live here, so there are many small farms, which women tend to run,” Mulkern says. “I started finding other bubbles around the country where the majority of farmers were women, and I visited them.”
Mulkern’s style is to follow female farmers while they go about their business and to capture them at work. Photos aren’t posed. “Every person says they don’t take good pictures. Everyone has that insecurity,” she says.
After sharing some of her work at a women in ag conference, a participant told her that seeing the photos was like looking in a mirror, and it made her realize how beautiful she was. “If you feel beautiful, that’s an unquantifiable result,” she says.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins
Women during the Great Depression had a strong advocate in First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She lobbied her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for more women in office—like Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to ever hold a cabinet position and the driving force behind the Social Security Act.
Ironically, while Perkins held a prominent job, herself, she advocated against married women competing for jobs, calling the behavior “selfish,” since they could supposedly be supported by their husbands. In 1932, the new Federal Economy Act backed up Perkins’ sentiment when it ruled that spouses of couples who both worked for the federal government would be the first to be terminated.
Migrant Women Farmworkers: An Invisible Essential Labor Force
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been an outpouring of public support for essential workers. But this national discourse has largely excluded migrant women farmworkers, despite their vital role in keeping food on American families’ tables.
Monica Ramirez, Executive Director of Justice for Migrant Women, is working to change that.
“I’m the first generation in my family that didn’t have to work in the fields to make a living,” Ramirez told Inequality.org. “So I was raised to be part of this movement and fight on behalf of my community.”
Ramirez founded Justice for Migrant Women after creating the first legal project in the United States dedicated to addressing gender discrimination against farmworker women. That legal project evolved to become Esperanza: The Immigrant Women’s Legal Initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
She decided to focus her work specifically on women migrant farmworkers after witnessing firsthand the systemic inequalities within the agriculture industry that made migrant women farmworkers particularly vulnerable.
Monica Ramirez helping distribute PPE for migrant farmworkers in Ohio. (Credit: Justice for Migrant Women)
Despite the fact that one in four farmworkers are women, Ramirez said that studies on the health risks of pesticide exposure have typically focused on men. This means that on top of the risks pesticides pose to everyone, hundreds of thousands of women farmworkers face particular threats to their reproductive health and to their children. Pesticides have been linked to poor birth outcomes, congenital anomalies, developmental deficits, and childhood tumors.
Current federal safeguards to address these inequalities are inadequate, according to Ramirez and other farmworker advocates.
Gender & economic inequality
The National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS), conducted by the Department of Labor, collects demographic, employment, and health data in face-to-face interviews with farmworkers throughout the country. The survey provides valuable information to lawmakers that greatly influences policy making. But unlike other surveys conducted by the Department of Labor, the (NAWS) does not disaggregate its data by gender — depriving policymakers and advocates of the data needed to better remedy the concerns of women working in agriculture.
“The National Agricultural Worker Survey does collect data that they could disaggregate by gender, but they choose not to, and that’s really harmful for women workers,” said Ramirez. “When we don’t know the real experiences of women migrant farmworkers, because the data is not disaggregated in a way for us to understand the reality, then it makes it even more challenging for us to do the work to try and improve those conditions.”
Another key survey, the Farm Labor Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also fails to make gender-disaggregated data available to the public. The survey is used to produce the annual Farm Labor Report which, among other things, helps establish wages under the H2-A temporary agricultural worker program. Without gender-specific information, it is difficult to understand the full scope of the gender wage gap among migrant farmworkers, which in turn makes it difficult for organizers to mobilize around specific demands.
Employers of farmworkers often avoid taxes by hiring the man in a family and making his wife and children work off the books.
Ramirez managed to obtain the USDA’s raw survey data and disaggregated it herself, finding the wage gap between men and women farmworkers to be about $5,000 annually. But even this understates the disparities, since many women farmworkers do not even have access to their own income. Employers will often officially enroll the man in a family as an employee while the wife and children work off the books.
“This kind of practice is beneficial to the employer because they pay fewer taxes and benefits but for the women, it’s really terrible,” said Ramirez. “They of course should be entitled to their own wages, but also it amounts to a situation that makes it incredibly difficult for them to leave an abusive relationship or be able to prove to immigration authorities that they work.”
Improving data collection on federal farmworker surveys is just one part of Justice for Migrant Women’s broader policy priorities for the Biden administration. Other priorities include reforming the immigration system, addressing violence against women, and instituting mandatory workplace health and safety guidance — a demand which became even more urgent as migrant farmworkers were left out of some federal Covid relief programs.
But most importantly, Ramirez believes transformative change will come when stories of inequality motivate others to fight for someone they do not know.
“In order to change things for the most marginalized, everyday people who have never worked a day in the fields will need to link arms and call for change alongside migrant women. And that can’t happen if people don’t have a clear picture of these women’s reality.”
Forum: Migrant women farmworkers are invisible essential labor force
Teenage migrant farm workers pick ripe Roma tomatoes in Cristo Rey, Sinaloa, Mexico. (Photo: DON BARTLETTI/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS)
Throughout the pandemic, there’s been an outpouring of public support for essential workers. But this has largely excluded migrant women farmworkers, despite their vital role in keeping food on American families’ tables.
Monica Ramirez is working to change that.
“I’m the first generation in my family that didn’t have to work in the fields to make a living,” Ramirez told me. “So I was raised to be part of this movement and fight on behalf of my community.”
Ramirez founded Justice for Migrant Women after creating the first legal project in the United States dedicated to addressing gender discrimination against farmworker women. That legal project became Esperanza: The Immigrant Women’s Legal Initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
She’s witnessed firsthand the inequalities in the agriculture industry that made migrant women farmworkers particularly vulnerable.
One in four farmworkers are women, but Ramirez said that studies on the health risks of pesticide exposure have typically focused only on men. On top of the risks pesticides pose to everyone, hundreds of thousands of women farmworkers face particular threats to their reproductive health and to their children. Pesticides have been linked to poor birth outcomes, congenital anomalies, developmental deficits, and childhood tumors.
Current federal safeguards to address these inequalities are inadequate, according to Ramirez and other farmworker advocates. In many cases, the federal government isn’t even collecting the data it would need to strengthen those protections.
The National Agricultural Worker Survey, conducted by the Department of Labor, collects demographic, employment, and health data in face-to-face interviews with farmworkers throughout the country. But it doesn’t disaggregate its data by gender, which makes policymaking and advocacy difficult.
“When we don’t know the real experiences of women migrant farmworkers,” said Ramirez, “it makes it even more challenging for us to do the work to try and improve those conditions.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Labor Survey also fails to make gender data available to the public. The survey is used to produce the annual Farm Labor Report which, among other things, helps establish wages under the H2-A temporary agricultural worker program.
Without gender-specific information, it is difficult to understand the full scope of the gender wage gap among migrant farmworkers, which in turn makes it difficult for organizers to mobilize around specific demands.
Ramirez managed to obtain the USDA’s raw survey data and disaggregated it herself, finding the wage gap between men and women farmworkers to be about $5,000 annually.
But even this understates the disparities, since many women farmworkers do not even have access to their own income. Employers will often officially enroll a male employee while his wife and children work off the books.
“This is beneficial to the employer because they pay fewer taxes and benefits, but for the women it’s really terrible,” said Ramirez. “They of course should be entitled to their own wages, but this also makes it incredibly difficult for them to leave an abusive relationship or prove to immigration authorities that they work.”
Other priorities for Ramirez’s group include reforming the immigration system, addressing violence against women, and instituting mandatory workplace health and safety guidance — a demand which became even more urgent as migrant farmworkers were left out of some federal COVID-19 relief programs.
Ramirez believes transformative change will come when stories of inequality motivate others to fight for someone they do not know.
“In order to change things,” she says, “everyday people who have never worked a day in the fields will need to link arms and call for change alongside migrant women. And that can’t happen if people don’t have a clear picture of these women’s reality.”
700,000 Female Farmworkers Say They Stand With Hollywood Actors Against Sexual Assault
In the lead up to “The Take Back the Workplace&rdquo march in Los Angeles on Nov. 12, Latina farmworkers have written a letter of solidarity to the brave women and men in Hollywood who have come forward with their experiences of sexual harassment and assault in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. The upcoming event is organized by the Feminist Majority Foundation, Civican, and We for She. It aims to shed more light on instances of sexual harassment in the workplace and call out those who commit it, allow it and help cover it up.
We write on behalf of the approximately 700,000 women who work in the agricultural fields and packing sheds across the United States. For the past several weeks we have watched and listened with sadness as we have learned of the actors, models and other individuals who have come forward to speak out about the gender based violence they’ve experienced at the hands of bosses, coworkers and other powerful people in the entertainment industry. We wish that we could say we&rsquore shocked to learn that this is such a pervasive problem in your industry. Sadly, we&rsquore not surprised because it’s a reality we know far too well. Countless farmworker women across our country suffer in silence because of the widespread sexual harassment and assault that they face at work.
We do not work under bright stage lights or on the big screen. We work in the shadows of society in isolated fields and packinghouses that are out of sight and out of mind for most people in this country. Your job feeds souls, fills hearts and spreads joy. Our job nourishes the nation with the fruits, vegetables and other crops that we plant, pick and pack.
Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security. Like you, there are few positions available to us and reporting any kind of harm or injustice committed against us doesn&rsquot seem like a viable option. Complaining about anything &mdash even sexual harassment &mdash seems unthinkable because too much is at risk, including the ability to feed our families and preserve our reputations.
We understand the hurt, confusion, isolation and betrayal that you might feel. We also carry shame and fear resulting from this violence. It sits on our backs like oppressive weights. But, deep in our hearts we know that it is not our fault. The only people at fault are the individuals who choose to abuse their power to harass, threaten and harm us, like they have harmed you.
In these moments of despair, and as you cope with scrutiny and criticism because you have bravely chosen to speak out against the harrowing acts that were committed against you, please know that you&rsquore not alone. We believe and stand with you.
Alianza Nacional de Campesinas
Alianza Nacional de Campesinas is an organization comprised of current and former farmworker women, along with women who hail from farmworker families.
Enslaved Women and Servants
Other women worked as servants or were enslaved. Some European women came as indentured servants, required to serve a certain amount of time before having independence.
Women who were enslaved, captured from Africa or born to enslaved mothers, often did the same work men did, in the home or in the field. Some work was skilled labor, but much was unskilled field labor or in the household. Early in Colonial history, Native Americans sometimes were enslaved.
Pioneering Labor Activist Dolores Huerta: Women 'Never Think of Getting Credit' But Now That's Changing
W hen TIME Magazine ran a cover story in 1969 about the then-ongoing grape boycott, organized in part by the United Farm Workers in an effort to address working conditions among the laborers who picked those grapes in California, Dolores Huerta was there &mdash sort of.
She was described in the story as the “tiny, tough assistant” of UFW leader Cesar Chavez. In reality, however, while Chavez was the head of the organization, Huerta was far more than an assistant. She and Chavez worked together in laying the groundwork for the union in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She worked directly with the farmworkers for whom the group advocated, and also in the state capital as their legislative advocate. She risked her life for her activism, is credited with coining the slogan “Yes, we can,” and along the way raised 11 children, many of whom have become activists in their own rights. In 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The question of how such an important figure in 20th century history could be seen as a mere assistant is a central theme of the documentary Dolores, which has its PBS premiere on Tuesday night. With the film’s Independent Lens debut on the horizon, the 87-year-old activist spoke to TIME about what it was like to be a woman leading a labor movement in the 1960s, and what comes next.
One of the main theses of this film is that you didn&rsquot get credit for the work you did to organize the farmworkers. What did you think of that as the focus of the movie? Did you feel overlooked at the time?
I never felt overlooked because I didn&rsquot expect any kind of recognition. I think that&rsquos very typical of women. I had been acculturated to be supportive, to be accommodating, to support men in the work they do. We never think of getting credit or recognition or even taking the power. We didn&rsquot think it those terms. Of course I think that&rsquos changing now and there&rsquos a surge of women who are not only running for office, but getting elected. That could make an incredible amount of difference in our world. We will never have peace in the world until feminists take power.
How would you define what it means to be a feminist?
To me, a feminist is a person who supports a woman&rsquos reproductive rights, who supports a woman&rsquos right to an abortion, who supports LGBT rights, who supports workers and labor unions, somebody who cares about the environment, who cares about civil rights and equality and equity in terms of our economic system. That is a feminist. And of course we know that there are many men who are feminists as well as women.
The film covers a little bit of the moment where you see the link between what you&rsquore working on with the farmworkers and the feminist movement of the time, and the question of whether there was room in the feminism of the 1960s for the women for whom you advocated. Were there any particular moments that made you feel excluded or included?
I have never felt excluded. My mother was a feminist. She was a business woman. She was a dominant force in our family. But when I went to work with the farmworker&rsquos union as an organizer, I kind of had to subdue my feminist tendencies in that respect. Women of color have always been in the forefront, of the civil rights movement and of the labor movement, but when you think about the feminist movement, it was originally organized by middle-class women. That&rsquos why a lot of people have that narrative that feminism is for white women. Lots has been made out of that, but I think sometimes that&rsquos not really fair. That&rsquos the way that it was. But I don&rsquot think the feminist movement was meant to exclude any people of color.
When TIME selected the people speaking out about sexual harassment and assault to be 2017’s Person of the Year, there was a line in the story about farmworkers marching in solidarity with Hollywood actors. When did you first become aware of sexual harassment as an issue affecting farmworkers?
Farmworker women have always been subjected to sexual harassment and rape. The women would have to have sex with the foremen to make sure that they kept their jobs. It was their form of job security to have children by these guys. The thing is, a lot of time you have farmworkers who work as families, so there&rsquos a lot of fear, because if the woman reports sexual harassment from the foreman, then maybe the whole family will get fired. There&rsquos also a threat of violence because her partner could feel that she was responsible for the come-ons, and she could then face violence at home. Also they work out in the fields and they&rsquore kind of isolated. In California, because of the work we did with the farmworkers&rsquo union, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board has included training on sexual harassment as part of the work that they do.
Was that something people were talking about early in this work, or was it hush-hush?
I think people talked about it amongst themselves, and of course we did a lot of work when I worked with the farmworkers&rsquo union to get women to come out and report sexual harassment. Luckily in California, women are able to report sexual harassment and they don&rsquot have to do it openly, they can do it privately.
ERS provides information on a range of farm labor issues, including:
- (self-employed versus hired) of hired farmworkers, including age, sex, and nativity of hired farmworkers of hired farmworkers of total gross revenues (AEWR) of hired farmworkers (crop agriculture only)
Finally, we provide links to key data sources with summaries.
Size and Composition of the U.S. Agricultural Workforce
The U.S. agricultural workforce has long consisted of a mixture of two groups of workers: (1) self-employed farm operators and their family members, and (2) hired workers. Both types of employment were in long-term decline from 1950 to 1990, as mechanization contributed to rising agricultural productivity, reducing the need for labor. Since 1990, employment levels have stabilized.
The reduction in self-employed and family labor through 1990 was more rapid than the decline in hired labor. According to data from the Farm Labor Survey (FLS) of USDA's National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS), the number of self-employed and family farmworkers declined from 7.60 million in 1950 to 2.01 million in 1990, a 74-percent reduction. Over this same period, average annual employment of hired farmworkers—including on-farm support personnel and those who work for farm labor contractors—declined from 2.33 million to 1.15 million, a 51-percent reduction. As a result, the proportion of hired workers has increased over time.
The rest of this page describes the employment, earnings, demographic characteristics, and other information for the hired farm labor force only. (Information on the well-being of the self-employed farmers and their families may be found on the ERS topic page on Farm Household Well-being.)
Hired farmworkers make up less than 1 percent of all U.S. wage and salary workers, but they play an essential role in U.S. agriculture. According to data from the 2017 Census of Agriculture, wages and salaries plus contract labor costs represented just 12 percent of production expenses for all farms, but 43 percent for greenhouse and nursery operations and 39 percent for fruit and tree nut operations.
Hired farmworkers are found in a variety of occupations, including field crop workers, nursery workers, livestock workers, graders and sorters, agricultural inspectors, supervisors, and hired farm managers. The majority are wage and salary workers, hired directly by farmers, but some are employees of agricultural service companies, including farm labor contractors, custom harvest providers, and management service providers. Many industrywide employment estimates also include support personnel on farms, such as human resource managers, sales agents, and truck drivers.
Many hired farmworkers are foreign-born people from Mexico and Central America, with many lacking authorization to work legally in the United States. In recent years, farmworkers have become more settled, fewer migrating long distances from home to work, and fewer pursuing seasonal follow-the-crop migration. The number of young, recent immigrants working in agriculture has also fallen, and as a result the farm workforce is aging. Over the past 30 years, wages for hired farmworkers have gradually risen, both in real terms and in relation to wages for the average nonsupervisory worker in a nonfarm occupation.
Hired farmworkers are employed in both metro (urban) and nonmetro (rural) counties. The statistics presented here refer to farmworkers nationwide, unless otherwise indicated.
Recent Trends in the Employment of Hired Farmworkers
According to data from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW), wage and salary employment in agriculture—including those in support industries such as farm labor contracting—stabilized in the 2000s and has been on a gradual upward trend since 2010, rising from 1.07 million in 2010 to 1.18 million in 2019, a gain of 11 percent.
From 2010-19, growth was fastest in crop support services (which added 56,600 jobs, a 20-percent increase) and in the livestock sector (which added 39,400 jobs, an 18-percent increase). It should be noted that the QCEW is based on unemployment insurance records, not on surveys of farms or households. As a result, it does not cover smaller farm employers in those States that exempt such employers from participation in the unemployment insurance system. However, survey data sources, such as the American Community Survey and the Current Population Survey, also find rising farm employment since the turn of the century.
Demographic Characteristics of Hired Farmworkers
Demographic information on farmworkers can be found in the American Community Survey (ACS) from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. These data also allow us to distinguish among manual laborers, managers/supervisors, and other occupations in the industry. Farm laborers have lower levels of educational attainment, are more likely to be Hispanic of Mexican origin, and are less likely to be citizens than are workers in other occupations in agriculture and than the U.S. wage and salary workforce as a whole.
|Item||Farm laborers, graders and sorters||Farm managers, inspectors, and supervisors||All other occupations in agriculture||Agriculture: All occupations||All U.S. private wage and salary workers|
|Average age in years||39||43||42||40||40|
|Percent under age 25||22||13||15||19||18|
|Percent over age 44||38||46||47||41||41|
|Percent White, not Hispanic||32||64||59||43||60|
|Percent Black, not Hispanic||3||3||5||3||12|
|Percent other, not Hispanic||2||3||3||2||9|
|Percent Hispanic: Mexican origin||57||27||28||45||12|
|Percent Hispanic: Other||7||3||6||6||7|
|Percent born in U.S. (includes Puerto Rico)||45||76||75||57||80|
|Percent U.S. citizens||54||84||83||65||90|
|Percent lacking high school diploma||48||24||20||38||9|
|Percent with high school diploma (includes equivalency)||32||31||33||32||29|
|Percent with at least some college||20||45||47||30||62|
|Note: Counts all private sector wage and salary workers employed in the crop, livestock, and agricultural support industries. |
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service analysis of data from U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, American Community Survey, 2018.
Differences in demographics are also evident between crop and livestock workers (not shown in table). A larger share of laborers in crops and related support industries are female (28 percent versus 20 percent in livestock). Crop laborers are also less likely to be non-Hispanic White (25 percent versus 48 percent for livestock), and less likely to have been born in the United States (39 percent for crop workers in manual labor occupations versus 60 percent for manual livestock workers). Finally, crop laborers have lower levels of educational attainment: 52 percent lack a high school degree, compared with 37 percent in livestock.
Notably, the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), discussed below, finds larger shares of foreign-born, Hispanic, and less educated employees among crop and support workers than does the ACS (livestock workers are not surveyed in NAWS). For example, NAWS estimates that in Fiscal Years 2015-16, just 25 percent of crop farm workers in manual labor occupations were U.S. born, compared with 39 percent in the ACS.
The Hired Farm Workforce Is Aging
As fewer young immigrants are entering agriculture, the average age of foreign-born farmworkers has risen, pulling up the average for the farm workforce as a whole. The average age of immigrant farmworkers rose by 5 years between 2008 and 2018. In contrast, the average age for U.S.-born farmworkers has remained roughly constant over this period.
Women Are an Increasing Share of the Hired Farm Workforce
The share of farmworkers who are women declined in 2006-09, from 20.3 percent to 18.6 percent, but has since climbed to 25.5 percent (in 2018). The fact that the female share fell during the Great Recession and has risen during the recovery is consistent with men moving into agriculture as employment in the nonfarm economy declines, and out of agriculture as nonfarm job prospects improve. The rising female share is also consistent with the fact that, as labor costs rise, some growers are adopting mechanical aids (such as hydraulic platforms that replace ladders in tree-fruit harvesting, and mobile conveyor belts that reduce the distance heavy loads must be carried) which facilitate more women and older workers in performing tasks that traditionally have been performed by younger men.
Geographic Distribution of Hired Farmworkers (By Place of Residence)
Sixty percent of hired farmworkers reside in counties that are defined as metro (urban). This largely reflects the fact that most of the main farming areas in California, Arizona, and other Western States lie in large counties that also include major cities and thus are defined as metropolitan. Significant numbers of farmworkers are also found in metro counties in the Great Lakes States (East North Central division) and in the South Atlantic.
Wages of Hired Farmworkers
According to data from the FLS, real (inflation-adjusted) wages for nonsupervisory crop and livestock workers (excluding contract labor) rose at an average annual rate of 1.1 percent per year between 1990 and 2019. In the past 5 years, however, real farm wages grew at 2.8 percent per year, consistent with growers' reports that workers were harder than usual to find.
In 1990, the average real farm wage for nonsupervisory crop and livestock workers was just over half the average real wage in the nonfarm economy for private-sector nonsupervisory occupations ($9.8 versus $19.40). By 2019, the farm wage ($13.99) was equal to 60 percent of the nonfarm wage ($23.51). In other words, the gap between farm and nonfarm wages is slowly shrinking, but still substantial.
Wages for nonsupervisory occupations varied little across occupations, ranging from $13.03 (for graders and sorters) to $14.61 (for equipment operators). For all but one of these nonsupervisory occupations, however, wages were more than 5 percent higher in 2019 than in 2018 (not adjusted for inflation).
Average hourly wages for hired agricultural managers stood at $24.77 in 2019, up 6.2 percent from the year before. Supervisors averaged $21.34 per hour, up 4.9 percent.
|Occupation||SOC code||Employment share 2019 (percent)||Average hourly wage 2019||Nominal wage growth, 2018-19 (percent change)|
|Graders and sorters, agricultural products||(45-2041)||2||13.03||0.7|
|Agricultural equipment operators||(45-2091)||16||14.61||5.2|
|Farmworkers, crop, nursery, and greenhouse||(45-2092)||42||13.96||5.9|
|Farmworkers, farm, ranch, and aquacultural||(45-2093)||23||13.61||5.0|
|Agricultural workers, all other||(45-2099)||2||14.18||5.5|
|Packers and packagers, hand||(53-7064)||2||14.22||14.1|
|Subtotal, nonsupervisory farmworkers||87||13.98||5.6|
|Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers||(11-9013)||3||24.77||6.2|
|Subtotal, supervisory and nonsupervisory occupations||94||14.61||5.7|
|All other farm occupations||6||19.52||-1.3|
|All farm occupations||100||14.91||5.2|
|Note: SOC = Standard Occupational Classification (SOC).|
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service using data from USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Farm Labor Survey. As of 2012, the survey no longer counts contracted agricultural service workers.
Labor Cost Share of Total Gross Revenues
Although farm wages are rising in nominal and real terms, the impact of these rising costs on farmers' incomes has been offset by rising productivity and/or output prices. As a result, labor costs as a share of gross cash income do not show an upward trend for the industry as a whole over the past 20 years. For all farms, labor costs (including contract labor, and cash fringe benefit costs) averaged 10.4 percent of gross cash income during 2016-18, compared with 10.7 percent for 1996-98.
However, these trends in labor cost shares differ by commodity. Labor cost shares have fallen slightly over the past 20 years for the more labor-intensive fruit and vegetable sectors, although they appear to have been trending upwards again in the past few years. On dairies and in nursery operations, both of which also rely heavily on immigrant labor, labor costs as a share of income are at or near their 20-year highs.
H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program
The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program—often called the H-2A visa program—provides a legal means to bring foreign-born workers to the United States to perform seasonal farm labor on a temporary basis, for a period of up to 10 months. Crop farmers can use this program to meet their seasonal labor needs, but most livestock producers, such as ranches, dairies, and hog and poultry operations, are not legally allowed to use the program to meet year-round labor needs. An exception to this restriction is made for producers of livestock on the range, such as sheep and goat operations, who can use H-2A workers year-round.
Employers in the H-2A program must demonstrate, and the U.S. Department of Labor must certify, that efforts to recruit U.S. workers were not successful. Employers must also pay a State-specific minimum wage, which may not be lower than the average wage for crop and livestock workers surveyed in the FLS in that region in the prior year, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR). (See the next section for details on the AEWR.) In addition, employers must provide housing for their H-2A workers and pay for their domestic and international transportation.
One of the clearest indicators of the scarcity of farm labor is the fact that the number of H-2A positions requested and approved has increased fivefold in the past 14 years, from just over 48,000 positions certified in fiscal 2005 to nearly 258,000 in Fiscal Year (FY) 2019. The average duration of an H-2A certification in FY 2019 was 5.3 months, implying that the 258,000 positions certified represented approximately 114,000 full-year equivalents.
Adverse Effect Wage Rate
H-2A employers must provide transportation and housing and pay the higher of the applicable State or federal minimum wage, the prevailing wage in that region and occupation, as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor, or the regional average farm wage observed in the NASS FLS. The latter is known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), reflecting the legal requirement that H-2A employment should not negatively affect domestic farmworkers by lowering the average wage. For FY 2020, this minimum hourly wage ranged from $11.71 (in Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina) to $15.83 (in Oregon and Washington).
Legal Status and Migration Practices of Hired Crop Farmworkers
Legal immigration status is difficult to measure: not many surveys ask the question, and unauthorized respondents may be reluctant to answer truthfully if asked. The U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) provides data on farmworkers' legal immigration status. NAWS data, believed to be of high quality, is gathered by trained and trusted enumerators who conduct face-to-face interviews with workers at their job sites and with their employers’ permission. NAWS also queries workers on their inter- and intranational migration patterns. One limitation of the NAWS, however, is that it excludes the growing number of H-2A workers, as well as all hired livestock workers.
Roughly Half of Hired Crop Farmworkers Lack Legal Immigration Status
The share of hired crop farmworkers who were not legally authorized to work in the United States grew from roughly 14 percent in 1989-91 to almost 55 percent in 1999-2001 in recent years it has been just under 50 percent. In 2014-16, 27 percent of crop farmworkers were U.S. born, 4 percent were immigrants who had obtained U.S. citizenship, 21 percent were other authorized immigrants (primarily permanent residents or green-card holders), and the remaining 48 percent held no work authorization. The share of workers who are U.S. born is highest in the Midwest, while the share who are unauthorized is highest in California.
More Farmworkers Are Settled, Fewer Are Migrants
More than 80 percent of hired crop farmworkers are not migrant workers but are considered settled, meaning that they work at a single location within 75 miles of their home. This share is up from 41 percent in 1996-98, reflecting a profound change in the nature of the crop farm workforce.
Among the small share of remaining migrant workers, the largest group is "shuttlers," who work at a single farm location more than 75 miles from home and may cross an international border to get to their worksite. Shuttlers made up about 10 percent of hired crop farmworkers in 2014-16, down from about 24 percent in 1996-98.
More common in the past, the "follow the crop" migrant farmworker, who moves from State to State working on different crops as the seasons advance, is now a relative rarity. These workers made up just 5 percent of those surveyed by the NAWS in 2014-16, down from a high of 14 percent in 1992-94.
The final category of hired crop farmworkers is newcomers to farming, whose migration patterns have not yet been established. The fact that they now represent just 3 percent of the crop farm workforce, down from as much as 22 percent in 1998-2000, in part reflecting the slowdown in net migration from Mexico to the United States since 2007.