Food and farmworkers from key agricultural states and industries today spoke to congressional staffers about the need to pass a Food and Farm Bill that protects the 21.5 million people who plant, harvest, process, transport, sell and serve our food. Their labor underpins a U.S. food and agriculture industry valued at $1.264 trillion in 2021.
At the briefing, workers asked for Congress to take action to address heat stress and pesticide exposure, to ensure line speeds in poultry processing plants don’t operate at unsafe speeds, and for equitable access to safe housing and protection from extreme weather. Workers also discussed the impact of emergency grants to food workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to replenish the USDA fund that provided these grants for the next potential emergency, and the challenges facing farmworkers who aspire to farming their own land.
The COVID-19 pandemic and extreme weather have exposed how food and farmworkers are the frontlines of a resilient, reliable food system, and voters have taken note. Recent polling found that 80% of registered voters support more and better workplace protections for essential workers in the farming and food industries.
As extreme heat, wildfire smoke and flash flooding have touched every region of the country this summer, food and farmworkers are at particular risk. Agriculture has one of the highest fatal occupational injury rates in the nation, and farmworkers die of heat-related causes at roughly 20 times the rate of workers in other civilian jobs. Risks facing farmworkers are growing under climate change, as hotter and more extreme weather increases the likelihood of heat stress, dangerous air quality due to wildfire smoke, exposure to toxic pesticides and economic disruption and insecurity. Research by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has found that without action to reduce global heat-trapping emissions, climate change is projected to quadruple U.S. outdoor workers’ exposure to hazardous heat conditions by 2065.
Today’s congressional briefing was hosted by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), the Farmworker Association of Florida, the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), HEAL (Health, Environment, Agriculture, Labor) Food Alliance, UCS, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). These organizations led more than 100 groups representing farmers, food and farmworkers, labor, rural interests, agriculture and environmental organizations in calling on members of Congress responsible for negotiating the Food and Farm Bill to include 10 pragmatic policy recommendations to support and protect food and farmworkers.
Below are quotes from the speakers and hosting organizations:
“Despite the critical role that working people play to ensure that our food is grown, produced, processed, made and delivered, since its inception the Farm Bill has purposefully excluded food and farm workers’ issues, leaving them vulnerable to the whims of their profit-hungry employers and corporate-dominated food and agriculture system,” said Navina Khanna, executive director of the HEAL Food Alliance. “For example, right now during unprecedented heat waves and increasing climate events, farmworkers face extremely dangerous heat and fire conditions, with no protections while at work. The 2023 Farm Bill is an opportunity for Congress to ensure that protections for these and other food workers - who comprise the foundation of our food and agriculture system - are at the core of our most far-reaching federal food policy.”
“Agricultural workers are the engine of the food chain and are always forgotten,” said Luis Jiménez, president of Alianza Agricola. “We are essential but are treated as disposable. It's time the Farm Bill included strong and critical protections for farm and food chain workers.”
“I have worked in maintenance at the Pilgrim poultry plant for the last seven years,” said David Adams, with UFCW Local 1996, in Georgia. “The union workers at Pilgrims of Athens process about 1.3 million chickens per week. When line speeds increase, workers' bodies suffer. That is why I think Congress should demand that the USDA ties line speed to worker safety in the upcoming Farm Bill. Meatpacking workers everywhere deserve a safe workplace.”
“We need to reframe the conversation around the Food and Farm Bill to one that puts worker interests on par with those of farmers and recognizes the rights of all laborers to dignified wages and occupational conditions,” said Dr. Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at UCS. “Anyone willing to do the essential work of keeping us fed and propping up the trillion-dollar food industry should have safe and dignified working conditions. We have heard directly from farmworkers about the need to better protect them while on the job, and for investment in research and innovation to keep food and farmworkers safe. We need to mandate better occupational and health standards, and to increase funding for research on farmworker health, alternatives to pesticides, and how to better protect workers from life- and health-threatening weather events like extreme heat, wildfires, and floods.”