By Nisreen Abo-Sido
The Farm Bill is one of the USA’s most comprehensive legislations on food and agriculture yet it leaves out farm workers. Agriculture is among one of the most dangerous industries in the country, with farm workers being 35 times more likely to suffer from heat-stress illnesses than civilian workers as a whole. They work long hours, performing physically strenuous tasks under exposure to toxic chemicals and intense heat while donning layers of clothing to protect themselves from these elements. With climate-change causing weather extremities and rapid-rising temperatures, the risk of farm worker heat-related illnesses and deaths are increasing.
Farm Worker Rights
The majority of the USA’s agriculture farm workers are immigrants that are exploited with low wages. They face immense marginalization like language barriers and fear of retaliation that prevents them from advocating for their rights. Without protections for the approximately 2.4 million workers on which much of the USA’s agricultural system depends, the country’s food systems are as vulnerable as its irreplaceable workforce. There are no federal standards specifically for worker-heat protection, and most state regulations also lack these requirements. While farm worker rights have been absent from the Farm Bill, increasing attention to climate change-related issues in the negotiations may present an opportunity for integrating heat-stress protections into the new Bill.
Farm Bill Renewal
Discussions of the Farm Bill are ongoing as the Bill is up for renewal this year. Passing the Farm Bill would require bipartisan support and input. The last Farm Bill released in 2018, had twelve titles covering: commodities, conservation, trade, nutrition, credit, rural development, research and by extension, forestry, energy, horticulture, crop insurance, and a miscellaneous category. Although labor laws may be difficult to advocate for within the typical Farm Bill structure, the Bill’s expansiveness and influence could create solid opportunities for policy coherence, namely recognizing and addressing economic, social, and environmental disparities together. For example, an important value’s case can be made in that the increasing severity of heat will not only disrupt rural economies ecologically but result in large economic losses related to productivity. Increasing heat hazards will continue to significantly threaten farm worker capabilities to perform the fieldwork at the root of the country’s food systems. The irreplaceability of the US’s large migrant farmworker population has been demonstrated by the massive productivity losses of labor shortages and the lack of people in the US willing to take on this brutal, low-compensated work.
Cases could be made to incorporate farm worker heat protections into the existing titles of the Farm Bill. An indirect, long and short-term approach would be through the Conservation Title (II). Climate mitigation efforts could prevent intense warming, while environmentally-friendly growing practices could increase shade and reduce pesticide applications. These approaches not only provide environmental benefits like reduced pollution and increased ecosystem conservation, but they could also benefit farmers financially by reducing costs of inputs.
Another approach would be to expand access to water, build shade structures, and improve farm worker housing through the Rural Development Title (VI). Public health is a central priority in this title which grants funding to address a “significant public health disruption.” Heat stress is another significant public health issue, and increasing temperatures caused by climate change will constitute a worsening disruption. Farm worker heat protections could also be included in the Horticulture Title (X) in the form of procurement decisions that channel government spending into farms that uphold these protections. Finally, a more direct set of protections could be included in the Miscellaneous Title (XII). Efforts to include farm worker rights in the Farm Bill have been very limited but the connections between climate change, heat stress, and consequences on the agricultural sector could elevate these discussions in the passing of this bipartisan bill.
The USA’s farm workers are essential and irreplaceable. During the COVID-19 pandemic, food and agricultural workers were deemed “critical infrastructure” by the Department of Homeland Security. If this group is not advocated for in concerns to the dangerous and lethal consequences of heat stress, the USA may take a critical hit to industry and food supplies. As the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union President Marc Perrone stated in a conversation regarding incorporating labor issues into the Farm Bill: “I just hope that everybody comes to some realization that [workers’] lives are important.”
Learn More: Five Things to Know About the Farm Bill
Photos By: Amol Mande & Los muertos crew