Commentary: Farmworkers deserve a living wage

Xóchitl Bada, Progressive Perspectives on

Published in Op Eds

With a new congressional term kicking off, the agricultural lobby will fight to bring the Farm Workforce Modernization Act back for approval to alleviate the shortage of farmworkers across the country. The bill is now in limbo after Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives. Despite this, lawmakers could take up other measures, such as increasing farmworker minimum wage, that would help address the shortage — and more importantly, improve labor conditions for these workers.

Net farm income for last year across the United States is projected to be $160.5 billion, up from $141 billion in 2021. Although 10% of this income is from government support to help farmers recruit enough workers, this investment has done nothing to address the root causes of the farmworker shortage.

Approximately 2.5 million workers toil in U.S. farms each year. In the last two decades, farmworkers have lost more than $65 million in wage theft; few standards exist to protect their wages. According to the 2019-2020 National Agricultural Workers Survey, at least 70% of farmworkers are foreign-born and 68% were born in Mexico and Central America.

American farmers are once again speaking up about their inability to secure enough laborers for the harvest of hand-picked crops. Chronic labor shortages of farmworkers regularly lead to rising production costs, empty shelves and higher food prices.

But there’s an effective solution to prevent such shortages: paying farmworkers a higher wage. Recent research indicates that raising minimum wages improves the recruitment and retention of low-wage workers, including agricultural workers.

Today, the federal minimum wage for agricultural workers is set at $7.25 per hour, lagging behind the 30 states and the District of Columbia that have a higher minimum wage and the 47 cities that have adopted minimum wages higher than their state minimum wage.

Agricultural work is not just poorly paid, it is also dangerous, with a fatal injury rate four times higher than other private sector workers. Work schedules in this industry include early mornings, weekends, holidays and more than 40 hours per week with insufficient or unreliable pay.


The hazards of farm labor include working outdoors, dying in extreme heat (which is increasing due to climate change), enduring inadequate and overcrowded living facilities and lacking access to adequate health care, which is the case, for example, for the half-million farmworkers based in California.

This is why raising wages is only the first step for improving the working conditions of farmworkers. In addition to harsh working conditions, these workers are seldom allowed to claim overtime or have collective bargaining rights due to exemptions in the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act. The lack of basic labor rights leaves many farmworkers unprotected from retaliation should they attempt to form unions. Having equal access to collective bargaining in all states would offer farmworkers the opportunity to negotiate wages, hours and benefits, thus making agricultural employment more attractive to a diverse pool of workers.

We need to advocate for federal changes to the National Labor Relations Act to offer all workers the right to union representation and support local living wage ordinances that mandate at least $15 per hour.

While it may be too late to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, it is never too late to begin imagining pieces of legislation that would truly help to raise the wages of all farmworkers. We can begin by supporting legislation that would extend federal overtime protections to agricultural workers.

We could also ask our legislators to support the Raise the Wage Act, a bill introduced in the House of Representatives last year. If passed, this bill would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, achieving a modest and adequate standard of living for all workers. And we could support the Fight for $15 and a Union, a decade-old labor rights movement. Although these are just modest solutions, we need to act soon because one thing is for sure: the continued exploitation of 2.5 million farmworkers is unacceptable, and we can do better.


(Xóchitl Bada is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project and associate professor in Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago. This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.) ©2023 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


blog comments powered by Disqus



A.F. Branco Pedro X. Molina Adam Zyglis Mike Shelton Ed Gamble Dave Whamond