The Food and Farm Bill Can Do a Lot for Workers  

August 24, 2023 | 10:21 am
photo of a line of farmworkers picking and bagging heads of lettuce to put in many cardboard boxes on a trailer in the background; the workers are all wearing hats and bandanas as protection from the sun and pesticidesBob Nichols/USDA
Omanjana Goswami
Interdisciplinary Scientist

This “Danger Season” (the months of May through October, when the risk posed by extreme weather is highest) has been characterized by record-breaking stretches of extreme heat overlapping with torrential rain and floods. Laboring outdoors on the front lines of the climate crisis, farmworkers face disproportionate impacts from extreme weather: recent research from the National Institutes of Health found agricultural workers are 35 times more likely to die from heat than other workers. This summer, there have been at least three farmworker deaths from heat: Dario Mendoza in Arizona, Efrain Lopez Garcia in Florida and Elidio Hernandez in California. And those are just the ones that have been reported.   

Farmworkers contribute back-breaking labor to put food on our plates while being exposed to numerous health hazards like heat,  toxic pesticide exposure, and food insecurity. Despite the growing risks faced by farmworkers, research on farmworker health is seriously underfunded. A recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that federal agencies focused on agriculture and health invested an average of only $16.2 million dollars per year in farmworker health research projects between fiscal years 2019 and 2022. For comparison, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) distributed $1.8 billion for research and education in 2022 alone.  

Although farmworkers are an integral part of the $1.264 trillion US food and farm economy, they have historically been left out of the federal food and farm bill—part of this country’s legacy of ignoring foreign-born immigrants and excluding them from protections. But that could all change with the next food and farm bill.  

Workers have the public’s support  

This year Congress is writing (and negotiating) a new food and farm bill. This mammoth piece of legislation covers everything from conservation to nutrition to crop insurance. While the bill’s provisions fall under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and worker safety is typically the domain of the Department of Labor (DOL), there are still many ways to build protections for food workers and farmworkers into this legislation. UCS has joined with partner organizations representing farmers, labor, and rural interests to advocate for a food and farm bill that finally offers support and protections to workers.  

There is also plenty of evidence that the public supports building stronger protections for the food and farm workforce. In recent polling commissioned by UCS, overwhelming majorities across the country want a food and farm bill that protects workers. This support crosses party lines, race and gender, level of education, and rural, suburban, and urban communities. 

UCS supports several pieces of legislation focused on food workers and farmworkers that have been introduced in Congress this year as “marker bills” for potential inclusion in the food and farm bill.  

The many marker bills that could help workers 

Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act (PAMWA): The giants of the meat processing industry are well known for violating labor laws and exploiting its workforce, subjecting workers to degrading and perilous conditions. This bill expands workplace safety and health protections for meat and poultry processing workers, ensuring safer line processing speeds and inspections, requiring Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards to prevent occupational injuries, and ending punitive attendance policies that punish workers for getting sick. The bill also includes farm system reforms that crack down on monopolistic practices by these large corporations, creating a fairer market that allows independent farmers and local food systems to thrive. The bill would also establish country-of-origin labeling for products, allowing consumers to identify where their food comes from so that food giants cannot simply shift the burden of their unfair system to others in the supply chain or import more unsustainable meat from other parts of the world. 

Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act: This bill falls within the jurisdiction of the DOL and is not currently under USDA (and food and farm bill) jurisdiction, but we hope its provisions can be taken into consideration as the food and farm bill is drafted. The bill would direct OSHA to establish a permanent federal standard to protect workers from exposure to excessive heat both in indoor and outdoor workplaces. The standard would require employers to provide workers with water for hydration and paid breaks in shaded or climate-controlled spaces, and require emergency response and transportation for workers who experience heat-related illness. 

Supporting Our Farm and Food System Workforce Act: This bill would establish a new Office of the Farm and Food System Workforce within the USDA to uplift the voices of these workers at the federal level and serve as a link between them and the USDA. The bill would also create a Farm and Food System Worker Advisory Committee to better represent workers’ interests and perspectives in USDA programs and decisionmaking. Building on the USDA Equity Commission recommendations, it would also set up a Farm and Food System Workforce Interagency Council made up of representatives from various federal agencies to improve coordination, planning, program development, and policymaking across cabinet-level leadership. Additionally, the bill would help with accountability through an annual public report examining recommendations for improving access to USDA programs and initiatives.  

Voice for Farm Workers Act: Established in the 2008 farm bill, the farmworker coordinator position within the USDA serves as a dedicated liaison between the department and farmworkers. Historically this position has lacked sufficient staff and resources to adequately fulfill its duties. This bill would strengthen the coordinator position with new resources and staffing capacity to improve the coordinator’s ability to act as the USDA’s primary point of contact on farmworker issues, and to improve access to USDA programs for labor groups and community-based organizations. The bill also expands the coordinator’s duties to create recommendations for new initiatives and programs, conduct further outreach and research, and implement programs and policy decisions related to farmworkers.  

Agricultural Worker Justice Act: This bill would establish fair practices for procurement and contracting within the USDA, ensuring that the department only contracts with companies that employ fair labor practices and pay fair wages/a living wage. The bill would also establish reforms to protect meat and poultry processing workers and prohibits attendance policies that punish workers for getting sick. Furthermore, the bill would require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct and submit a report to Congress on the use of temporary, incarcerated, and undocumented workers, including the H-2B nonimmigrant program or any refugee program, in meat processing plants. 

Child Labor Exploitation Accountability Act: Child labor exploitation in the meatpacking industry is a serious issue, with violations including the deaths of at least three children this summer. This bill would hold companies accountable if they violate labor laws and exploit workers, including children.  Specifically, this bill would require companies competing for USDA contracts to disclose labor and worker safety infractions and establish transparency measures to ensure USDA and DOL compliance. 

According to UCS Farm Bill Campaign Director Sophie Ackoff, “For too long, the Agriculture Committees and USDA have failed to include workers in their constituency, even though our industry depends on them. UCS stands in solidarity with our partners representing food and farmworkers, including Food Chain Workers Alliance, United Food and Commercial Workers, Farmworker Association of Florida, and HEAL Food Alliance, in calling on Congress to make this year’s food and farm bill the first to grant protections for our nation’s food and farmworkers.” 

How can you support workers? 

The multitude of heat waves and extreme weather alerts that have made the news this Danger Season serve as a stark reminder of the dangers food workers and farmworkers face every day. As UCS continues to advocate for a food and farm bill that upholds environmental, racial, and climate equity, we ask you to reach out to your members of Congress and Senators and ask them to support the inclusion of these marker bills in the bigger food and farm bill. We need a food and farm bill that’s a win for farmers, farmworkers, the environment, and our overall food and farming system.