The State of Farmworkers in California

California produces over 350 commodities; including 1/3 of the nation's vegetables and nearly 2/3 of the nation's fruits and nuts.  California produces 90% of the strawberries grown in the U.S.

Between 1/3 and 1/2 of all farmworkers in America reside in California, or roughly 500,000 - 800,000 farmworkers.  Approximately 75% of California's farmworkers are undocumented; 83% in Santa Cruz County.  App-roximately 1/3 are women, and they range in age from their teens to their 60s.  In addition there are 400,000 children working in U.S. fields; See Eva Longoria’s documentary about children Farmwokers, The Harvest/La Cosecha.

Agricultural Exceptionalism 

In the U.S., there are few protections for farmworkers in general. Agricultural exceptionalism is codified in all labor laws with its inherent gender discrimination and racism.  Farmworkers are not subject to the National Labor Relations Laws that grew out of New Deal legislation in the 1930s.  Rather, under agricultural exceptionalism, farmworkers are at the mercy of the corporation and those in charge of managing farmworkers.

  • Farmworkers are not protected under the National Labor Relations Laws (NLRA).

  • Farmworkers are exempt from many protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA). Exempt from most minimum wage and hour guarantees.

  • They are not entitled to overtime pay or mandatory breaks for rest or meals

  • There are few labor protections for farmworker children.

  • Most farmworkers are excluded from federal minimum wage laws and other labor protections, including the right to overtime pay for workers that work more than 40 hrs./wk.

  • FWs are not protected from retaliation by federal law when engaged in labor organizing.

  • They are not entitled to receive attorney fees under the Migrant and Seasonal Ag. Worker Protection Act.

  • Many FWs on small farms don’t even have access to toilets and hand-washing facilities and drinking water.

  • There is a Lack of Transparency in the Food system. 

The Fair Labor Standards Act is supposed to protect all workers with respect to the federal minimum wage and overtime pay, evenundocumented workers.  However, workers have little or no way to enforce their rights.

Women, Housing, and Children's Education.

Women Farmworkers are often systematically subjected to sexual slurs, groping, threats, beatings and even rape in the fields. In California, 80% of farmworker women claim that they have experienced sexual harassment.

State-run camps house only 12,000 farmworkers, or approximately 1.5% of the state's farmworker population.  In addition, migrants can live in the camps only from May 1, to the end of November. If they wish to return, they must move 50 miles or more away from the camp during the off-season.  This interrupts their children’s education. Some farmworkers' children attend up to 4 schools in two countries during the year, and their chance of high school graduation is only 10%.  Ultimately, most fall further and further behind in their education, thus ensuring another generation of FWs.


Every year 2 billion pounds of licensed pesticides are used in the U.S., or 1/5 of global use. The U.S. EPA estimates that 300,000 farm workers are poisoned by pesticides each year nationwide; many cases are never reported. There are an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 cases of physician-diagnosed pesticide poisoning among U.S. farmworkers, and the average life expectancy of farmworkers is only 49 years. 

California is the deadliest state in the U.S. for Mexican workers. Mexicans are 80% more likely to die on the job than any native workers. In 2008 15 farmworkers, including a young pregnant woman died in the fields as a result of the intense heat stress with no shelter and/or time given to cool off in the shade. 


With few, if any rights, a life of perpetual poverty, a life expectancy of an average of only 49 years, no health insurance, inadequate nutrition, and often deplorable housing conditions, farmworkers are relegated to the status of a discardable, impoverished labor system that results from the agribusiness system of food production.

Several researchers have concluded  that farmworkers would be physically a lot healthier over the long term if they stayed in Mexico.  They leave the worst of the Third World when they come to the U.S., and they encounter the worst of the First World when they become FWs in corporate agribusiness.  The longer they’re in California, the sicker they get. A life of poverty, poor nutrition, overwork, agrochemical exposure, lack of access to health care and other factors ultimately takes its toll. 


Growers are certainly a rung above the farmworkers with the lucrative profits they make in the production system; especially those that work for vertically integrated corporations.  However, in the neoliberal economy, they must compete not only with other growers in their region, but internationally.  So, if berries can be produced cheaper in Tai Wan and shipped to the U.S., the incentive is then to cut production costs further.  Since farm labor makes up approximately 50% of the cost of production, the incentive is to continue to lower farmworker wages in the so-called “race to the bottom,” even during times of a labor shortage like this year and last. Ultimately, with intense international competition, the growers themselves can be put out of business.


Consumers unwittingly purchase the produce picked by people that are systematically exploited by the corporate agribusiness system.  Since the heavy use of pesticides in conventional agriculture leaves residues behind in food, consumers do not know what poisons they are consuming and how they will affect their health.  They are even kept in the dark re: whether or not a food product contains transgenic grains or other products; even in the face of mounting scientific evidence demonstrating that transgenics are harmful both to human health and the environment


With literally billions of pounds of pesticides dropped onto the environment every year, we are losing species and even the bees that are critical to successful pollination.  Perhaps if there is a winner in this scenario, it’s the agrochem/biotech companies that reap the financial benefit of their poisonous wares. However, the poisons will impact the quality of life for all children born today; even the children of those who promote agrochemical use and Genetically Modified Organisms in the world today.  So their children will pay the price.

Aside from the agrochem/biotech companies, no one really wins in the present agribusiness food system as it currently exists.  It is an unsustainable, failed system.  I have two reports on my desk, including one from the UN, indicating that if we converted all agriculture to organic agriculture globally, we could feed all of humanity + mitigate climate change.  The question then becomes: Why aren't we doing that?

This report is part of a talk given by Dr. Ann Lopez, founder of the Center for Farmworker Families. If you are interested in having Dr. López speak with your group or event please contact us.