Dysfunctional Congress Left American Farm Workers in Limbo

*note: This op-ed was originally published in the the Opinion section of the Messenger on October 18, 2023

Dysfunctional Congress Left American Farm Workers in Limbo

By Jose Oliva and Sophie Ackoff

Although Congress was able to make a deal this weekend and avoid a government shutdown, the 21.5 million people working in the food and agriculture system are still stuck in limbo. Congress quietly missed its deadline for the 2023 farm bill amid its dysfunction. While Congress spends the bulk of its time fighting over the basic function of funding our government, reauthorizing the next farm bill is pushed further and further back. Working people have been fighting for a safe and fair farm bill for years, and can’t afford gridlock any longer. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a handful of industrial agriculture corporations have consolidated control over the food system and are using their outsized influence to see that labor protections never make it into the farm bill. It’s time for Congress to challenge these corporate lobbyists, put aside partisan politics and put constituents first.

As longtime worker advocates, we speak each day with the people growing, harvesting, processing and shipping the food that our communities rely on. We hear the stories of folks working without protection from extreme temperatures– whether it’s scorching heat in Florida fields, Arkansas meatpacking plants, or Illinois warehouse docks. We hear from workers forced to toil at breakneck speeds for hours on end, without time to even get water or go to the bathroom.

This cruelty isn’t an oversight – it’s the lasting legacy of enslavement and exploitation in America’s food and food system. The hallmark labor laws of the New Deal era, the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, both excluded agricultural workers. And each of the 18 farm bills since 1933 have also failed to address their needs.  

Over the years, working people have steadily built power and mobilized for better conditions and fair pay. Now, farm and food workers are demanding a farm bill that finally recognizes their contributions and respects these essential workers. Recently, Mirella Estrada, a member of the Farmworker Association of Florida, shared her testimony with nearly 100 Congressional staffers, recounting long days in the field, sometimes from 4am to 11pm with just 15 minute lunch breaks and limited water. She remembered one day when a coworker wandered away to try to find shade under a tree to cope with the heat. “By the time we got there his life was near ending,” she said. “We tried to provide CPR and dialed 911 but by the time they came he had passed.”

Mirella’s story is one of many. Food and farm workers in Arizona, California, Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee have already died on the job this year. Between 2017 and 2022, 121 workers died from heat, not including deaths blamed on other workplace accidents or underlying health conditions exacerbated by heat. Farm workers are now 35 times more likely to die of heat exposure than other workers according to the National Institutes of Health.

Extreme heat is also making toxic pesticides more harmful as the chemicals evaporate into the air more rapidly, filling the lungs of farm workers and drifting into nearby homes. 

The agriculture system doesn’t have to be this dangerous. There’s a clear pathway forward, with many pragmatic measures before Congress that would make a major difference for food and farm workers. We support Senator Padilla’s bills to ensure workers have a voice at USDA where decisions affecting them are made; Senator Booker and Representative Khanna’s bill to create safer conditions for processing meat and poultry, one of the most dangerous jobs in agriculture; Senator Booker’s bill to protect farmworkers that bear the burden of pesticide exposure; and Senator Welch and Representative Casar’s bill to ensure that USDA purchases food from companies that pay their employees a living wage.

These kinds of bills are backed by voters across the country who understand the value of protecting food and farm workers. Nationally, 80% of voters across party lines support more and better protections for food and farm workers. And in a poll of voters in key agricultural states of Michigan, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Colorado, 61% of voters identified the risk of illness and injury to food and farm workers as a threat to their own community. 

Congress has the opportunity to do right by millions of workers and the majority of Americans who support a fair and safe food system. This year’s farm bill must reimagine, remake and reinvigorate our food and farm system into one that works better for workers, farmers, ranchers, and eaters alike.

Sophie Ackoff is formerly the Farm Bill Campaign Director for the Food & Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Jose Oliva is the Campaigns Director of the HEAL (Health, Environment, Agriculture & Labor) Food Alliance.