The primary goal of industrial farms is to maximize profits – even if it threatens the well-being of farm workers, the men and women who help bring food to our tables. Workers on industrial farms and those in the food-processing industry are often subject to hazardous working conditions and unfair labor management practices. Sustainable farmers, on the other hand, understand that healthy and fair employment practices can yield better food and a stronger community.
Working conditions at confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are unhealthy, dangerous and extreme. Because the animals are often housed directly above the giant pits that store their manure, harmful gases such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and methane that are produced by the decomposing manure can contaminate the air that the animals and farm laborers breathe. 1 In addition to these gases, dust and other irritants known as endotoxins—which come from the cell walls of the bacteria in the manure—are often found in very high concentrations on CAFOs. 3 These substances can be hazardous to farm workers either through chronic (or long-term) exposure at low levels, or acute (concentrated) exposure at higher levels.
Among the health problems associated with chronic exposure, respiratory ailments are the most common. As many as 25% of all workers at confined animal feeding operations experience chronic bronchitis, while up to 70% will have acute bronchitis at some point during the year. 4 Chronic exposure to hydrogen sulfide can cause many problems, most notably in the neurological and cardiological systems. 5 Regular inhalation of particulate matter such as dust can cause both respiratory symptoms like bronchitis and cardiological symptoms like arrhythmias and heart attacks. 6
Since most of the gases produced from decomposing manure are highly toxic, and can even be lethal in high concentrations, there is also a serious danger to workers who work near manure storage systems and animal houses that are improperly ventilated due to either neglect or equipment failure. Hydrogen sulfide is of particular risk because it can be deadly at even relatively low levels, and is not detectable by smell even at high levels. 5 Ammonia and carbon dioxide can both asphyxiate a person at high enough concentrations. 1 Deaths caused by breathing the accumulated manure gases in animal houses or by falling into manure storage tanks are infrequent but they do occur— from 1992 to 1997, there were twelve documented cases of worker deaths in manure lagoons in the US. 7 Manure gases pose serious risks to workers beyond poisoning or asphyxiation; methane is highly flammable, and if not vented properly from manure tanks, it can explode. 1
The adverse effects of industrial food production are not limited to farm workers. Food manufacturing has some of the most dangerous jobs in the country. Workers in meat-packing plants suffer repeated trauma injuries at rates far higher than other industries (repeated trauma injuries involve small harms over a period of time in which there is no actual striking or wounding of the body).
In 1996, for example, the rate of repeated-trauma disorders at meat-packing plants was 27 times higher than the national rate for private industry as a whole, and almost six-and-a-half times the rate for all manufacturing jobs. 8 While meat-packing had the highest rate of repeated-trauma injuries, poultry slaughtering and packing had the fifth-highest rate. 8 In 1995, meat-packing workers suffered injuries at a rate of 22.7 per 100 workers, making meat-packing the seventh-most dangerous industry in the United States in terms of non-fatal injury. 9
Many farm workers in the United States are undocumented immigrants. Most assume that employment rights (such as overtime pay, safety training and worker’s compensation) do not apply to them. Yet most federal and state labor laws protect all workers equally, regardless of immigration status. Furthermore, there exists a specific law which allows farmers to recruit people in other countries to come to the US to perform farm work. Often referred to as a “temporary worker program,” or the H-2A program, this law provides visas for up to 45,000 agricultural jobs a year.
This program protects immigrant workers' rights to fair wages, benefits and transportation, and regulates minimum-work guarantees, working conditions and housing for foreign workers. It even stipulates that workers who complete a farm season must be provided with transportation back to their home country. While this program seeks to protect both U.S. and foreign workers from abuse, violations of the law persist. 10
Although protected by state, and sometimes federal, law, immigrant workers generally face hurdles in asserting their legal rights, due to limited English language skills, poverty, and lack of familiarity with the laws and regulations governing their work. They often fear punishment, including being fired by employers, if they assert their rights in the workplace. Workers whose immigration status is linked to their employment are reluctant to bring complaints against their employers because their legal status in the U.S. depends on their remaining in that job. The H-2A program requires employers to provide return transportation only for workers who complete their season of work, so a worker who complains and is either fired or leaves a job may have no way to return home. A temporary foreign worker who considers making a complaint about work conditions also often fears that he or she will earn a reputation as a bad worker, jeopardizing future opportunities to be recruited for work. 11
For undocumented workers, the barriers can be even greater, as the fear of losing their job is combined with the fear of being reported to immigration enforcement. In many cases, employers have threatened to - or in fact have - contacted federal authorities regarding workers' immigration status in order to intimidate workers into dropping charges of unfair labor practices. This has led the majority of migrant workers to remain silent rather than seek the protection of the law.
Furthermore, federal legislation has prohibited legal service agencies that receive federal funding from representing undocumented workers. This means companies can save money by not paying higher wages, adhering to safety regulations, and paying fines for safety violations, accidents and deaths. When undocumented workers die or are injured, employers can quickly replace them, creating near impunity for employers who skirt the laws. This “disposable workforce” (estimated at 53 - 90% of all farm workers 12 ) is often migratory, uneducated and living at, or well below, the poverty line. 13
In addition to perpetuating unsafe and illegal working conditions on industrial farms, the surplus of cheap and often undocumented labor has led to a reduction in both wages and the amount of available work. Between 1989 and 1998, the average inflation-adjusted wage of farm workers in the United States fell from $6.89 to $6.18. 14 The number of weeks that the average farm worker was employed fell from 29.3 to 24.9 weeks per year during the same period. 14 Workers in the food manufacturing industry saw a decline in inflation-adjusted wages of 2.24 percent from 2000 to 2005. 15
Sustainable, small-scale farms may employ undocumented workers, but the likelihood is far less. Sustainable farms tend to be located within communities, and are far more transparent than industrial factory farms, welcoming visitors and customers. Those who do employ undocumented workers are likely to offer better working conditions for the same reasons of transparency and community-mindedness.
There are several organizations in the United States committed to supporting farm workers, specifically addressing many of the issues highlighted here. A few organizations and unions work on a national scale, including the United Farm Workers of America, which was founded in 1962 by Cesar Chavez, and the National Farm Worker Ministry. Many more organizations operate on a much smaller scale, often focusing on a specific agricultural region or state.
A truly sustainable farm treats farm workers with respect, pays them a fair wage, and protects them from unnecessary dangers. Which food you choose at the supermarket ultimately affects the lives of these farmers and workers. Though there are many local organic farms that support workers rights and even help unionize their workers, just because a farm is “organic” does not automatically mean that working conditions there are safe and fair. Getting to know the farm where you buy your food will help bring you closer to those who produce it, and enable you to know that you are supporting fair labor practices.
Some of the actions you can take to help improve the lives of farm workers include: