Demanding Equality and Respect for the Women Who Feed America

AyrianneMarch is the month during which National Farmworker Awareness Week and César Chávez Day take place—two very important events in the farmworker community. It is also the month the United States pays tribute to the many women who have made great contributions to our society. Every year since 1995, the U.S. President has proclaimed March as Women’s History Month. Harvesting the food that we all consume is certainly a great and most honorable contribution, but it is a role that is rife with inopportunity and abuse—especially for women. Farmworker women often see their hard work and desire to achieve the American Dream undermined by poverty, their gender, and racial discrimination.

There have been many noteworthy advancements in addressing gender inequality, but a wide gap still remains when it comes to earnings. For women of color, that gap continues to be a chasm often too great to traverse. In fact, according to the “Survivors of Color & Economic Security” report published last month by Wider Opportunities for Women, 80 percent of Hispanic women fail to make ends meet, higher than black and white women, and their male counterparts. This is especially true for many farmworker women.

Farm work is already one of the lowest paying jobs in America, with an average annual income between $10,000 and $12,000, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey. Benefits like paid time off, health care, and overtime pay are almost unheard of in agriculture, with the exception of a few thousand workers who are unionized. As a result, most farmworkers live below or at the poverty line—and farmworker women are even worse off. Women performing farm work typically earn substantially less than their male counterparts. Sometimes this disparity in income is due to employers’ preference to hire men for work they deem more physically demanding or as a result of the piece rate system, which pays workers based on the amount picked.  Women are also looked over when there are opportunities for promotions to supervisory roles and those tasks that require the use of heavy equipment, which may offer increased pay and are viewed as male roles.

Photo by Martha Beltran, AFOP Health & Safety Programs AmeriCorps memberThree farmworker women in Arizona at the end of a long day in the fields.

Photo by Martha Beltran, AFOP Health & Safety Programs AmeriCorps member
Three farmworker women in Arizona at the end of a long day in the fields.

Moreover, some agricultural employers do not permit pregnant women to work due to the harmful effects of pesticides on developing fetuses and fear of liability for birth defects and malformations associated with exposure. This discriminatory practice, which is a violation of the Sex Discrimination in Employment Based on Pregnancy Act, can be devastating for farmworker women who are already struggling to make ends meet. Language, education, and cultural barriers help further trap the women and their families in a cycle of poverty.

Harassment and abuse are also so prevalent in agriculture that female workers in Florida often refer to the fields as a “green motel,” where women are sexually harassed and even raped by supervisors and colleagues. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that 80 percent of women working in agriculture had been victims of sexual harassment, compared to half of the general population. Extreme poverty, isolation, language barriers, and immigration status often make farmworker women the “perfect victims.” Next month, AFOP’s Health & Safety Programs will release an in-depth report on health issues experienced by female farmworkers, including lack of access to health care and sexual violence. The report titled, “The Hidden Faces of Farmworker Women,” will feature conversations and personal testimony from farmworker women of varying ages from around the country on their experiences.

This week, as farmworker advocates from across the nation come together to highlight agricultural workers through National Farmworker Awareness Week, it is especially important we draw attention to the many issues plaguing the women who not only take care of their families, but help feed America. These extraordinary women offer so much of themselves and ask for so little in return. It is time we demand the change necessary to honor, respect, and provide equal opportunities for farmworker women by insisting on fair pay and equal access to employment and investing in non-traditional training opportunities that lead to higher paying jobs for women.

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