Labor Rebekah Entralgo

This Invisible Essential Labor Force Is Organizing for a Better Life

The migrant women farmworkers who put food on our tables are organizing for a better future after the pandemic.
[U.S. Department of Agriculture / CC BY 2.0]

By Rebekah Entralgo | OtherWords

Throughout the pandemic, there’s been an outpouring of public support for essential workers. But this has largely excluded migrant women farmworkers, despite their vital role in keeping food on American families’ tables.

Monica Ramirez is working to change that.

“I’m the first generation in my family that didn’t have to work in the fields to make a living,” Ramirez told me. “So I was raised to be part of this movement and fight on behalf of my community.”

Ramirez founded Justice for Migrant Women after creating the first legal project in the United States dedicated to addressing gender discrimination against farmworker women. That legal project became Esperanza: The Immigrant Women’s Legal Initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

She’s witnessed firsthand the inequalities in the agriculture industry that made migrant women farmworkers particularly vulnerable.

One in four farmworkers are women, but Ramirez said that studies on the health risks of pesticide exposure have typically focused only on men. On top of the risks pesticides pose to everyone, hundreds of thousands of women farmworkers face particular threats to their reproductive health and to their children. Pesticides have been linked to poor birth outcomes, congenital anomalies, developmental deficits, and childhood tumors.

Current federal safeguards to address these inequalities are inadequate, according to Ramirez and other farmworker advocates. In many cases, the federal government isn’t even collecting the data it would need to strengthen those protections.

The National Agricultural Worker Survey, conducted by the Department of Labor, collects demographic, employment, and health data in face-to-face interviews with farmworkers throughout the country. But it doesn’t disaggregate its data by gender, which makes policymaking and advocacy difficult.

“When we don’t know the real experiences of women migrant farmworkers,” said Ramirez, “it makes it even more challenging for us to do the work to try and improve those conditions.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Labor Survey also fails to make gender data available to the public. The survey is used to produce the annual Farm Labor Report which, among other things, helps establish wages under the H2-A temporary agricultural worker program.

Without gender-specific information, it is difficult to understand the full scope of the gender wage gap among migrant farmworkers, which in turn makes it difficult for organizers to mobilize around specific demands.

Ramirez managed to obtain the USDA’s raw survey data and disaggregated it herself, finding the wage gap between men and women farmworkers to be about $5,000 annually.

But even this understates the disparities, since many women farmworkers do not even have access to their own income. Employers will often officially enroll a male employee while his wife and children work off the books.

“This is beneficial to the employer because they pay fewer taxes and benefits, but for the women it’s really terrible,” said Ramirez. “They of course should be entitled to their own wages, but this also makes it incredibly difficult for them to leave an abusive relationship or prove to immigration authorities that they work.”

Other priorities for Ramirez’s group include reforming the immigration system, addressing violence against women, and instituting mandatory workplace health and safety guidance — a demand which became even more urgent as migrant farmworkers were left out of some federal COVID-19 relief programs.

Ramirez believes transformative change will come when stories of inequality motivate others to fight for someone they do not know.

“In order to change things,” she says, “everyday people who have never worked a day in the fields will need to link arms and call for change alongside migrant women. And that can’t happen if people don’t have a clear picture of these women’s reality.”

Rebekah Entralgo

Rebekah Entralgo

Rebekah Entralgo is the managing editor of Inequality.org. This op-ed was adapted from Inequality.org and distributed by OtherWords.org.

4 comments

  1. Once again the invaluable labour of the poor and especially minority, women is clearly illustrated! This is why we need a powerful labour movement united to Black Lives Matter, to LGBTQ groups, and all other diverse groups seeking justice only together in unity can we take on the corporate powers and ensure decent wages, safe working conditions, gender equity, good benefits and prevent the continued exploitation of the poor. Thanks for this!

  2. The more organized collective action gets, the more susceptible it becomes to being co-opted or corrupted. Even today, what few Unions that remain as well as those that are just broken remnants of their former glory fit into one of these two categories or both. That, is the Achilles heel of collective action, and those who rule are masters of exploiting it to their advantage. Usually, it isn’t even very hard for them to do. As we all know or at least should know, is that people…the overwhelming majority of people are easily corruptible or swayed.

    It is the reason that Socrates nailed the problem with democracy over twenty five centuries ago. People are simply too easily swayed by evil men. Nothing has changed in all time from then to now. It is the reason that, in order for people to effectively organize and act for the collective good of all, must understand human nature and be ever vigilant of their leaders and question those leaders actions when appropriate. The word trust should never enter the equation.

    All it takes for it all to go bad is a small bit of trust combined with an opportunity.

  3. It seems to me that society has valued money more than HUMAN LIFE. When this happens, no corporation will ever vote to clean up the planet, or develop free energy etc. etc.

    And when a few inventors stumble upon a new finding they are killed or marginalized. Corruption runs hand in hand with money. There can never be enough money, and the black hole gets bigger and bigger the more people there are on the planet. If we get away from money to a moneyless society, true human potential has a chance, whereas with a monetary system it never will.

  4. When we shut down the monetary system we shut down most of the evil enterprises in the world. And for those nay sayers, I say lets give it a try and see what happens. It can’t be any worse than the killing fields we now have.

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