An invisible essential labor force

How the migrant women farmworkers who put food on our tables are organizing for a better life after the pandemic.

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Throughout the pandemic, there’s been an outpouring of public support for essential workers. But this has largely excluded migrant women farmworkers, despite their vital role in keeping food on American families’ tables.

Monica Ramirez is working to change that.

“I’m the first generation in my family that didn’t have to work in the fields to make a living,” Ramirez told me. “So I was raised to be part of this movement and fight on behalf of my community.”

Ramirez founded Justice for Migrant Women after creating the first legal project in the United States dedicated to addressing gender discrimination against farmworker women. That legal project became Esperanza: The Immigrant Women’s Legal Initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

She’s witnessed firsthand the inequalities in the agriculture industry that made migrant women farmworkers particularly vulnerable.

One in four farmworkers are women, but Ramirez said that studies on the health risks of pesticide exposure have typically focused only on men. On top of the risks pesticides pose to everyone, hundreds of thousands of women farmworkers face particular threats to their reproductive health and to their children. Pesticides have been linked to poor birth outcomes, congenital anomalies, developmental deficits, and childhood tumors.

Current federal safeguards to address these inequalities are inadequate, according to Ramirez and other farmworker advocates. In many cases, the federal government isn’t even collecting the data it would need to strengthen those protections.

The National Agricultural Worker Survey, conducted by the Department of Labor, collects demographic, employment, and health data in face-to-face interviews with farmworkers throughout the country. But it doesn’t disaggregate its data by gender, which makes policymaking and advocacy difficult.

“When we don’t know the real experiences of women migrant farmworkers,” said Ramirez, “it makes it even more challenging for us to do the work to try and improve those conditions.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Labor Survey also fails to make gender data available to the public. The survey is used to produce the annual Farm Labor Report which, among other things, helps establish wages under the H2-A temporary agricultural worker program.

Without gender-specific information, it is difficult to understand the full scope of the gender wage gap among migrant farmworkers, which in turn makes it difficult for organizers to mobilize around specific demands.

Ramirez managed to obtain the USDA’s raw survey data and disaggregated it herself, finding the wage gap between men and women farmworkers to be about $5,000 annually.

But even this understates the disparities, since many women farmworkers do not even have access to their own income. Employers will often officially enroll a male employee while his wife and children work off the books.

“This is beneficial to the employer because they pay fewer taxes and benefits, but for the women it’s really terrible,” said Ramirez. “They of course should be entitled to their own wages, but this also makes it incredibly difficult for them to leave an abusive relationship or prove to immigration authorities that they work.”

Other priorities for Ramirez’s group include reforming the immigration system, addressing violence against women, and instituting mandatory workplace health and safety guidance — a demand which became even more urgent as migrant farmworkers were left out of some federal COVID-19 relief programs.

Ramirez believes transformative change will come when stories of inequality motivate others to fight for someone they do not know.

“In order to change things,” she says, “everyday people who have never worked a day in the fields will need to link arms and call for change alongside migrant women. And that can’t happen if people don’t have a clear picture of these women’s reality.”

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