Health Jill Richardson

Our Exploitative Food System Is Killing Farm Workers

Our food system is built on exploited labor — a problem that’s getting worse as the climate changes. What’s the solution?
[Alex Proimos / CC BY-NC 2.0]

By Jill Richardson | OtherWords

Two farm workers died during a recent heatwave in Washington and Oregon. While this is outrageous, it’s not unusual. Farm workers die in hot weather every year.

Part of the reason is climate change — as temperatures soar, outdoor working conditions get deadlier. But another part of the problem is centuries old.

The fact is that Europeans brought an exploitative agricultural system to this continent. Although its form has changed throughout time, our food system is still built on exploited labor.

Market pressures incentivize this exploitation.

Farmers are price takers twice over. They purchase equipment, fuel, seeds, and credit at prices set by the market, and they sell what they produce at prices determined by the market as well. As farms often operate on thin margins, one way to compete is by exploiting labor.

Until 1865, one form of exploited agricultural labor was slavery. After the Civil War, the U.S. government broke a promise to give freed African Americans 40 acres and a mule, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by white land owners.

Even the New Deal left these workers out. In order to secure the votes of southern segregationists, the New Deal’s labor reforms excluded domestic workers and farm workers. Both jobs were often done by African Americans.

In California, Anglo Americans exploited one ethnic group’s labor after another — including Native Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and Filipinos. During the Dust Bowl, they employed poor white “Okies” from Oklahoma. Today, the hard work is chiefly done by Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

Nowadays, farm workers are paid piecemeal rather than hourly — which incentivizes long hours without breaks, which can be deadly in a heat wave. Farm workers and their families are also often exposed to pesticide drift.

The result is an efficient system that produces large amounts of cheap food. Americans spend less of their disposable income on food than people from any other country. That’s a good thing by itself — but the price is paid by exploited laborers.

Exploited populations have always been people who are vulnerable in some way. They are often the targets of racism, and sometimes coerced by violence.

For example, when Anglo-Americans first settled the Owens Valley, California, they declared Native Americans’ ancestral lands private property and deprived them of their food sources. The settlers controlled Natives by violence, forcing some to serve as a compliant workforce in order to survive. Others resisted or died.

Today, citizenship and documentation are sources of vulnerability.

Workers without papers may avoid going to the authorities when they’re victims of wage theft or inhumane working conditions because they fear being detained or deported. A study of large lettuce farms in Arizona and California found that hiring undocumented immigrants allowed farms to push workers to work harder and faster because of their fear of deportation.

The recent farm worker deaths are a reminder of two big problems that need systemic change: the climate crisis and labor rights in agriculture. How can we have vibrant rural communities, a food system that doesn’t leave people hungry, fewer greenhouse gases, and labor rights for all who work in agriculture?

Plenty of billionaires, like Bill Gates or California’s Resnick family, profit from agriculture. I feel no sympathy for them. But we do need to consider the pressures on family farmers, as well as the need to keep food affordable.

The solution needs to involve labor rights for farm workers, more democratic land ownership, and more general efforts to mitigate climate change and reduce poverty. In short, it’s time to move away from the exploitative farming system we inherited centuries ago.

Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This op-ed was distributed by


  1. Local Small Family Owned Farms, Local Farmers Markets, Worker Member Owned Food Co/ Ops, Backyard Gardens, and Community Gardens.

    Our food should be Organic, Local, and Vegetarian.

    1. And your self-righteousness and arrogance will make people do just the opposite. Because of your tone I assume that you’re of the PMC (professional/managerial class), so I’ll clue you in that working people like myself really HATE class-based bougie sanctimonious attitudes like yours. I can’t afford to eat like you, so I’ll happily eat canned chicken tonight that I stockpiled over a year ago.

  2. I like this piece but the notion of democratic land ownership is one I’m not familiar with; surely the only way to change land ownership is redistribution of land effectively ending property rights and land grabs (which would be a good idea as far as I’m concerned).

    Tony Phillips

  3. Thank you, Jill. Excellent piece.

    May I ask, as you pursue your doctorate, and as you go beyond it “into the field,” that you consider population pressure as a source of the need for exploitation of farm workers?

    Might not allowing our population to naturally decline reduce the need for the intense farming that both exploits workers and destroys our environment? (To give just one example: The “dead zone” at the southern end of the Mississippi River is caused by run-off from Illinois and Iowa farms. The fertilizer makes its way south, where it feeds the algae that, when they die, absorb dissolved oxygen causing fish kills.)

    In other words, the question might not yet be about solving this problem, as about identifying its underlying cause. Why the need for such intense farming?

  4. It is a common misnomer to equate the damage due to industrial meat farming (and forage) with population growth without considering diet.. In Ireland too for example the “food” industry is beef (like the US and Brazil and ….) but the damage is done to export luxury products across the planet which nobody needs…

    The Latin “illegal” workforce in such farming is however not engaged in such damage as causes most of the dead zones from run off except for the large number of indoor worker who work in slaughter houses and pig and chicken farms. I think, correct me if I’m wrong Jill, that you are speaking more of people who work on industrial farms producing produce ? Their damage to the Mississippi and other rivers are tiny in comparison with the industrial meat industries.

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