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The Hidden Workforce

The Hidden Workforce

Originally published on May 22, 2017

If you've gone to college in a rural area, you've probably made jokes about how there are more cows than people, or that parties are held in cornfields rather than houses. You've probably made these jokes without ever setting foot on a nearby farm, or even contemplating the fact that there are farms close to your school. You've never considered the people who worked to grow and deliver those fruits and vegetables you’re eating—not matter how overcooked they may be in the dining hall. I know that for a long time, I personally never thought about any of these things.

In the 21st century, most of us probably don’t think twice about farming; however, farming is no small industry. In fact, according to the World Bank, we’ve seen the value added to GDP by agriculture average at 1.3 percent per year since 1997. This change is relatively little and may be due in part to changes in technology and food demands in the US, such as organic or non-GMO food. In addition, according to the USDA, the farming sector of the economy in 2015 employed 2.6 million people. It’s important to remember that like most businesses, small farms accounted for 90 percent of all farms, while 99 percent of all farms are family-owned and operated.

If America’s roots are intertwined with farming, then it only makes sense that farmers and farmworkers would receive the same protections as other jobs. However, this isn’t the case. In fact, agriculture is largely exempt from federal and state laws. Perhaps the most perverse of these is the Fair Labor and Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA). Passed during the Great Depression in the Roosevelt administration, the FLSA sets up the basic guidelines and protections that workers ought to have as afforded by the law. Some of these provisions include a minimum wage, an overtime rate, mandatory breaks, and prohibiting child labor.

However, employees who engage in agricultural work are exempt from overtime pay and therefore work for the same wage no matter how many hours they work. In addition, unless an employer at a farm uses more than 500 “man days” per calendar quarter they’re exempt from having to pay an overtime wage to their employees. The term “man days” describes the aggregate amount of days that employees work. So if five employees worked five days in a week that would be a total of twenty-five man days. So if you have roughly 90 calendar days in a quarter, assuming that everyone works all seven days, it would take the employment of six people to hit this man-day number. However, because most farms are small, they, in turn, do not employ many people, nor do they typically farm seven days a week.

Even if farmworkers were working 500 man-days in aggregate, it is very tough for them to advocate for a higher wage for two reasons. First, farmworkers typically hold little economic power—due in part to their low wages—and therefore may be highly dependent on their job to support themselves and their families. Hence, they may be less likely to approach their employer when the farmhand can be easily replaced. Agricultural employees also lack collective bargaining powers afforded to employees of other professions. Second, oftentimes updates to the labor laws or the current status of them are not communicated or distributed well to employees. Therefore, farmworkers may be ill-informed of their rights and protections. The nature of working in a rural environment may lend itself to a slower distribution of information, and in some cases employees might rely solely on labor law information from their employer. Most of us have seen this. Ror example, in break rooms, the federal and state mandates are typically plastered around the wall. If employers do not explicitly tell their employees their protections, it becomes difficult for the employee to know how they should be treated. Therefore, it may be hard for agricultural employees to confront employers if they do not know what rights they should be advocating for.

With these hurdles to overcome, there are numerous organizations that work to help educate, empower and accompany agricultural employees in attaining their policy goals. On the national level, there is Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit that looks to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers, in addition to establishing better working conditions. On the state level, there are organizations like the Rural & Migrant Ministry (RMM) of New York, another farmworker justice organization that looks to directly change New York State statutes regarding agriculture. The RMM holds advocacy events like a 200-mile march from Long Island to the capital in Albany. In addition, they hold youth camps and educational opportunities for migrant and rural workers in the area.

These organizations look to help rural and migrant workers, with an important distinction between the two: Migrant workers move from farm to farm with the changes in the season. Migrant workers are typically born in the U.S., and agriculture is just a way of life for them, as oftentimes that was their parent’s source of employment. The term immigrant describes someone who has moved from another country to the U.S. Oftentimes, individuals may assume that all farmworkers are immigrants, as it is often portrayed by the media. However, this not the case. Regardless of their nationality, rural workers, in general, have been excluded from labor laws and protections.

Food represents such an integral part of our daily lives. It’s important that we don't forget the people that helped bring it to our tables. If you want to help make a change you can look into volunteering at one of these organizations.


“Agriculture, Value Added (% of GDP) | Data.” Accessed May 22, 2017.

“Compliance Assistance - Wages and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) - Wage and Hour Division (WHD) - U.S. Department of Labor.” Accessed May 22, 2017.

“Farmworker Justice | Empowering Farmworkers to Improve Their Living and Working Conditions since 1981.” Accessed May 22, 2017.

“Rural & Migrant Ministry | Hope, Justice and Empowerment.” Accessed May 22, 2017.

“USDA ERS - Ag and Food Sectors and the Economy.” Accessed May 22, 2017.

“USDA ERS - Farming and Farm Income.” Accessed May 22, 2017.


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