The fruit and vegetable industry in the United States is estimated to be worth at least $28 billion annually. Many of the farms that produce these food items rely on migrant labor to harvest them at the end of the growing season.
It is estimated that there are over 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States.
It could be said that the migrant worker is the backbone of the American food industry. Without their help, people would not be able to access the food choices they currently have or would need to pay higher prices in order to do so. That also brings up one of the issues of the migrant worker industry: their pay. Many migrant workers are not paid legal wages, much less achieve a livable wage while performing farm work.
- The percentage of migrant workers in the United States that were foreign born: 72%.
- 68% of all the farm workers in the United States were born in Mexico.
- 45% of Mexican migrant workers were found to be from the traditional sending states of west central Mexico, including Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Michoacán.
- The percentage of farm workers that were born in Central American countries: 3%.
- 78% of farm workers are men and 35% of them state that they do not have the ability to speak English at all.
- The percentage of migrant workers who say that they can “somewhat” speak English: 8%.
- The average age of a migrant worker in the United States right now: 36.
- For the average migrant worker, the average level of education that has been achieved is a completion of the 8th grade.
- 17% of migrant workers are “follow-the-crop migrants” who have two or more farm jobs located more than 75 miles apart.
- 42% of migrant workers do not have an established home in the United States.
- The percentage of migrant workers that have children: 45%.
- Migrant workers make up 64% of the harvest labor force and 45% of the peak season labor force.
Why are so many farmers hiring migrant workers to perform their harvest? One of the primary reasons is because the labor is cheap. Many of those who are working in a migrant fashion are either present illegally or do not have the education or vocational skills to get another job to support themselves. With lower levels of education and a questionable immigration status, these workers are easy to take advantage of because they are living under a constant threat of deportation or imprisonment anyway. Some studies have noted that to pay fair wages to migrant workers, the average consumer would need to pay 15% more per product. For a $2 vegetable, that translates to an extra quarter.
Doesn’t U.S. Law Require Mandatory Wages For Migrant Workers?
- According to 2007-2009 National Agriculture Workers Survey results, 23% of farmworker families had total family income levels below the national poverty guidelines.
- 48% of farm workers do not have legal authorization to work in the United States.
- Only 1 in 3 migrant workers is a U.S. citizen.
- Just 2% of 2005 NAWS respondents claim to receive Social Security payments.
- Many migrant workers qualify by income for food assistance and other aid programs, but are not eligible because of their status as a migrant worker.
- There are 36 states that have made it a requirement to provide worker’s compensation benefits to migrant workers.
- About 89% of the migrant labor camps had more than one violation in a recent survey in North Carolina.
- Up to 30% of migrant workers living in conditions that are considered not suitable for permanent human habitation.
- Migrant workers in the United States with 12 months or fewer experienced averaged just 17 weeks of gainful employment.
- Only 1% of farm workers claim disability benefit annually.
Many migrant workers report having hostile conditions directed toward them because of their sometimes questionable legal status, but that isn’t the only issue that workers face. The piece rate system of payment that some farmers have begun to use can also work against a group of workers. In theory, the piece rate system is supposed to inspire workers to work harder so they are able to achieve more wages. In practicality, however, when dozens of workers are in the same field, piece rate options become spread out amongst every worker and no one earns a living wage – and that’s all completed legally. 83% of migrant workers say that they are paid hourly, but even then the wages may not even meet the Federal minimum wage.
Migrant Workers Face Challenges Worldwide
- There are 100,000 undocumented migrant workers in Kuwait that are facing deportation right now.
- 90% of the migrant workers in the Middle East form more than 90% of the population of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
- In the nation of Bahrain, more than 667,000 migrants work daily, an increase of 6.4% over 2012 statistics.
- At least once per week, an Indian migrant worker in Oman will complete a suicide attempt.
- There are currently 25,000 Ethiopian migrant workers who want to work, yet are stranded at the Saudi Yemen border.
Migrant workers face a number of challenges in the world today. Part of this is because of their perceived status as a worker. Their jobs are needed, but considered to be substandard. This causes host nations, including the United States, to treat these workers in substandard ways. Most farm workers might be young and they might be strong, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to take advantage of these people. If we’re given a choice between spending $2 for an eggplant or $2.25 to make sure that workers could have a fair working wage, most people would be willing to spend the $2.25 – if for no other reason but to ease their conscience.