Insights into Power and Gender Dynamics of Migrant Labor in Agriculture

There is a distinct and important difference between a farmer and farmworker. Farmers are in the position of privilege, with a voice for executive decisions. Farmworkers, though, work hard in the varying weather conditions, don’t get healthcare or childcare, and women are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment. That being said, odds are, when you visit your produce section at the grocery store, migrant labor was sourced and exploited to get those food products to you.

Farmers rely on immigrant and migrant labor – who may have fewer job opportunities and are forced to settle for longer hours for less pay. The 2018 ‘Demographic Characteristics of hired farmworkers’ data reported that just 45% of farm laborers are born in the United States. To contrast, 84% of farm managers and supervisors are U.S. citizens. At the Rancho Laguna farm in Santa Maria, CA – which supplies berries that are ultimately sold under the Driscoll’s brand – farmworkers held a strike in May 2020 for “a long-term salary increase of $0.25 per box of strawberries picked, safe conditions, and respect without retaliation,” according to the Santa Maria Sun.

However, many migrant farmworkers fear retaliation for speaking out against negligent working conditions. The fears of losing their coveted jobs in the U.S., threats of deportation, or an entire family at the farm facing the repercussions are a few reasons why farmworkers are especially vulnerable in their work environments.

The United States has a long history of relying on migrant farmworker labor to fulfill the growing produce demand here North of the U.S.-Mexico border. The Bracero Program, initiated during World War ll, was a series of agreements between Mexico and the United States to bring Mexican guest workers to work on “short-term, primarily agricultural labor contracts,” to mitigate wartime production shortages. “Mexican nationals, desperate for work, were willing to take arduous jobs at wages scorned by most Americans.”

The Bracero Program provided housing and food for workers. Source.

The Bracero Program was the foundation of labor market relationships between the United States and Mexico and, likely, contributed to the influx of migration from Mexico. Though the Bracero Program officially ended in 1964, relying on Mexican nationals for foreign farm labor didn’t stop there.

The U.S. government offers an H-2A Visa for employers to bring in non-immigrant foreign workers to the states for temporary agricultural labor, in the event of a shortage of domestic workers, according to the Department of Labor, provided that “there are not sufficient workers who are able, willing and qualified, and who will be available at the time and place needed.”

The H-2A Visa, though, doesn’t address the power imbalance created and sustained by business authority figures towards vulnerable, poor, migrant workers. Sexual violence against female farmworkers has been rampant since the inception of time. This power dynamic can be seen through the ‘Demographic characteristics of hired farmworkers and all wage and salary workers, 2018’ data studied and published by the Economic Research Service of the USDA. Of farm laborers, only 25% were female. And of the farm managers, inspectors and supervisors, 87% were male.

A 2010 research paper ‘Examining the Sexual Harassment Experiences of Mexican Immigrant Farmworking Women’, echoed these USDA data, saying “Unlike gender-segregated worksites of Mexico, women farmworkers in the United States labor alongside men, facilitating harassment from coworkers and supervisors.” For women in the fields, they often experience the effects of being female in a male-dominated industry, living in poverty, and being an immigrant. “Farm-laboring women’s distance from power places them in subordinate economic and racial positions, creating the circumstances facilitating sexual harassment.” This short quote offers perspective and illustrates the overarching relationship between gender and power. 

At the 2000 UN Meeting on Gender and racial discrimination, Crenshaw said “In this metaphor, race, gender, class and other forms of discrimination are the roads that structure social, economic or political terrain. It is through these thoroughfares that dynamics of disempowerment travel.”

Supervisory positions are commonly held by men (92%),” which is a serious risk factor when considering the vulnerabilities of female farmworkers: low-wage, low-prestige jobs, and their jobs are contingent on the men who supervise, organize and critique them. 80% of female farmworkers claimed to have experienced some form of sexual violence on the job.

Female farmworkers have responded to sexual harassment on the fields by disguising their gender identity by covering their faces with a bandanna – to mask feminine features. The issues of race, gender and immigration status are all inextricably interwoven and compound to form layers of inequality which heighten the risk of sexual violence.

‘iSi Se Puede!’: Dolores Huerta, Farmworker & Social Justice Activist. Source.

Sexual violence against female farmworkers is seldom talked about because it’s not a “salacious” topic in the same way it might be in Hollywood, political or corporate environments. These are migrant women who are at their most vulnerable: working labor jobs, for pennies, in which their ability to make money and, likely, continue to shelter their immigration status to the “outside” is contingent on those men in power positions.

For centuries, women have been a critical part of agriculture and fueling the world through food. From the incredible im/migrant women who continue to demonstrate stewardship to communities and the environment, resilience and fierceness, to Dolores Huerta, community organizer and life-long advocate for farmworkers’ rights, the women of the world prevail and lead us through it all. As women continue to serve as the cornerstone of America’s agriculture heritage, and as we all recognize and empower them, it’ll be clear that they do deserve all the gratitude, love and support that they so graciously afford us.

-Posted by Rebecca

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