Farmworkers not seeing benefits of rising agricultural exports
The value of agricultural exports rose 2.5 times between 1989 and 2009, but the average hourly earnings of U.S. farmworkers increased only $1.52 over the same period—farmworkers have hardly benefited economically from the increase in agricultural exports.
A new Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper, Farm Exports and Farm Labor: Would a raise for fruit and vegetable workers diminish the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture?, finds that a 40 percent increase in farmworker earnings would only raise U.S. household spending by about $16 a year. The report, by Philip Martin, a Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis, also provides an outline of fruit, vegetable and horticultural (FVH) production in the United States and a discussion of the earnings of the immigrant farmworkers who work on FVH farms.
Statement from Farmworker Justice: Unlike many parts of the economy, labor-intensive crops actually have a positive trade balance; our produce growers are not only selling in the United States but they are also exporting to other countries.
The report shows that despite dramatic growth in productivity and in exports, for which farmworkers are partly responsible, farmworkers have not shared in the benefits. Farmworkers continue to be very poorly paid, rarely receiving any fringe benefits. The labor laws continue to discriminate against farmworkers.
There are solutions and one of them is to pay farmworkers higher wages and give them fringe benefits. Another is to more vigorously enforce employment laws. As the Farmworker Justice/Oxfam America report, Weeding Out Abuses (2010) showed, there are rampant violations of the minimum wage and other rights of farmworkers even though agricultural employers are exempt from many labor protections afforded other occupations' workers.
This report shows that the impact on consumers of substantially higher wages paid to farmworkers would be minimal, and we believe most consumers would be willing to pay a bit more for their fresh produce if they knew farmworkers were being treated better. This report blows away the myth that a head of lettuce in the supermarket will cost $3 if we improve farmworkers' wages, a claim we often hear.
Another myth is that the small family farmer would be hurt by better treatment of farmworkers. The reality is that most farmworkers don’t work for small family farms; they work for sizeable growers. Of course this is nothing new. Carey McWilliams wrote about the industrialization of agriculture in “Factories in Fields” in 1939.
Farmworker Justice is a national advocacy organization for migrant and seasonal farmworkers with more than 25 years of experience on immigration and labor policy. For more information contact Alec Saslow: 202-789-7751, [email protected]