HEAL Farm Bill Backgrounder – Labor

Securing Dignity and Fairness for Food Chain Workers and Their Families

The 21.5 million people who work in our food system are integral to every aspect of food and farm policy. However, they are currently excluded from farm bill provisions and programs. 

Much of US agricultural policy depends on a distinction between owners and workers. This distinction goes back hundreds of years, and is rooted in our economy’s reliance on slavery:  unpaid labor to work the fields. This system enabled white landowners, businesses, and industries to reap huge profits by not compensating enslaved Black farmworkers and treating them as disposable. When Congress wrote the farm bill and labor laws in the 1930s, they excluded the jobs that had historically been held by enslaved people, including farmworkers. Today, many large agribusiness corporations and food retailers continue to exploit and underpay the food and farm workers who keep us all fed. Powerful corporations are able to do this because our laws devalue some people’s lives and worth, based on intersections of race, nationality, age, gender, and other identities.

Farmworker Exclusion

In the 1930s, lawmakers agreed to exclude farmworkers from New Deal programs, including the farm bill, as a concession to Southern white legislators who sought to keep Black agricultural workers in poverty. In the first Farm Bill, crop subsidies were reserved for landowners, who were predominantly white. By contrast, the Farm Bill excluded Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers, who subsequently lost their land and livelihoods

Other laws ensuring workers’ rights and protections, like the 1935 National Labor Relations Act and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, expressly excluded farmworkers, denying them rights that many of us take for granted, like overtime pay and the right to collectively organize. This separate classification of farmworkers has spawned an industry rife with abuse. Today, farmworkers — the majority of whom are foreign-born, mostly Latine or Indigenous to Latin America — confront brutal working conditions, substandard housing, and exposure to toxic pesticides and other hazards like heat stress, fires, and storms. Undocumented farmworkers in particular have limited or no legal recourse for addressing these types of labor abuses. One in five farmworkers have incomes below the poverty line, and less than half have health insurance, in spite of agricultural work being one of the most dangerous jobs in the US.

Exploitation of Food Chain Workers

Beyond the farm gate, working people are also exploited in other parts of the food system, from meatpacking and processing to distribution and retail. 

A handful of meat corporations control a huge share of the market, and as a result, they wield enormous power. Meatpacking workers on slaughtering and processing lines (over 70 percent of whom are BIPOC) face long hours and high rates of serious occupational injuries. Many are denied bathroom breaks and sick days by their employers, who force them to work under increasingly unsafe conditions. For years, meatpacking corporations have been pushing for faster line speeds (which refers to how many livestock are processed per minute) in processing facilities. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regularly grants line speed waivers to corporate meatpackers and has rolled back regulations in order to allow more and more facilities to operate beyond existing limits. Faster line speeds increase the likelihood of injuries to workers, including serious cuts and amputations, and make it harder for federal meat inspectors and quality control workers to catch issues with contamination. In addition, a lack of independent oversight and understaffing in many meatpacking plants also contribute to increased injuries to workers. Even as large corporate meatpackers impose measures that endanger workers’ health, they use a variety of strategies to evade paying fair wages, health care costs, and workers’ compensation claims

On top of failing to protect working people, the farm bill actually provides support to farm operators, meatpacking corporations, and vendors who employ harmful labor practices. Ever since the 1996 Farm Bill, subsidies and emergency payments have primarily benefited mega-farms, large food processors and distributors, and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), many of whom are notorious for labor violations. 

Although the food industry is one of the most profitable sectors in the US and the largest private employer in the country, nearly half of restaurant workers earn incomes below the poverty line. In many states, restaurant workers receive a tipped minimum wage, which means that their base pay can be reduced to account for estimated tips. The tipped minimum wage, along with other provisions that allow teenagers and people with disabilities to be paid below the minimum wage, exacerbate income inequality and keep many workers in poverty. Food workers face high levels of food insecurity and rely on food stamps at more than twice the rate of all other workers. Major corporations like McDonald’s and Walmart are among the largest employers of recipients of government assistance, underpaying their workers and relying on taxpayers to bridge the gap.

What can we do?

  • Include a new labor title in the farm bill and address workers’ rights throughout the bill.
  • Support the Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act (PAMWA), which aims to strengthen health and safety standards across the meatpacking industry, limit line speed waivers, establish reporting standards and labeling requirements, and implement many other protections for meatpacking workers. 
  • Support the Restaurant Workers’ Bill of Rights, which advocates for better pay and benefits, working conditions, and labor protections.
  • Prohibit USDA from contracting with or using federal funding to procure goods and services from companies that engage in unfair labor practices (as is consistent with existing USDA authority over contractual obligations regarding conservation standards, for example).
  • Implement the guidelines laid out by Good Food Communities at the federal level, awarding procurement contracts to companies that achieve high scores in racial equity, workers’ rights, and environmental protection.
  • Support the Protect America's Children from Toxic Pesticides Act, which proposes to remove dangerous pesticides from use and would thereby reduce farmworker exposure to toxic chemicals.