Why Women Farmworkers Are Speaking Out

Savannah Kuang, CUESA Staff
March 29, 2019

Farmworkers are the backbone of our agricultural system and are vital to bringing food to our tables. Yet US farmworkers are subject to long-hour days in harsh working conditions, and often struggle to earn enough to provide food for themselves and their families.

Because California is the country’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables, the state has the highest share of immigrant crop workers at an estimated 70 percent. The majority of farmworkers are immigrants, undocumented, and low-income. Twenty-eight percent of US farmworkers are women, who also face additional risks such as sexual harassment and violence by their supervisors.

In honor of National Farmworker Awareness Week, Women’s History Month, and Cesar Chavez’s birthday (March 31), MiHistoria, a storytelling platform for the Latina experience, presented Voces del Campo, an afternoon showcasing stories from women farmworkers. Women farmworkers spoke to the importance of organizing for change and using their voices to bring awareness to these conditions.

“This event brings out the stories to life of the people who put food on our tables,” said Albertina Zarazúa Padilla, facilitator and curator of MiHistoria’s story archive. “Because they’re part of the system that feeds us, it’s important to share their stories and recognize what goes on in the fields.”

Farming Labor Conditions for Women

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agriculture ranks as one of the most hazardous industries due to difficult working conditions and chemical exposure to pesticides. Farmworkers are at very high risk for injuries, and extreme weather conditions can cause health problems among farmworkers, such as heat-related illnesses and exhaustion.

California has laws in place that require water and shade breaks, but these laws don’t fully protect workers. Because most farmworkers are paid based on a “piece rate” (for example, by the number of bags or buckets they harvest of a particular crop), they are often discouraged from taking breaks.

Female farmworkers face further abuses in the fields. The Human Rights Watch estimates that hundreds of thousands of immigrant farmworker women and girls in the United States face a high risk of sexual violence and sexual harassment. Because many farmworker women are also undocumented, they’re especially vulnerable and afraid of speaking up.

Pesticides also threaten farmworkers’ health. With California as the largest agricultural economy in the United States, there are an estimated 700,000 state farmworkers who are threatened by the use of pesticides in the fields. Farmworkers are not always aware of the symptoms of pesticide exposure, which can result in unreported pesticide-related illnesses.

Others may not seek medical attention due to lack of health care coverage or transportation. This can lead to chronic conditions such as respiratory diseases, birth defects before childbirth, and terminal illnesses. Because undocumented and indigenous farmworkers may not speak English or Spanish, the language barrier can also prevent them from seeking help.

Women Organizing for Change

While challenges in the fields are prevalent, farmworkers are organizing now more than ever to fight for fair wages and better working conditions. Women-led organizations such as Líderes Campesinas and the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas are advocating for change by raising awareness, organizing their communities, and influencing policymakers to provide protections for farmworkers.

At the MiHistoria event, Sorangel, a former farmworker and current community organizer at Líderes Campesinas, shared her experience being exposed to pesticides in the fields. “I caught this very strong cough, and a few days later, my eyes started getting very red and I cried without feeling like crying,” said Sorangel. “The foreman thought I was pregnant, but I was actually sick from the chemical substances that were hurting me.” Her doctor advised her not to work in the fields anymore. “The doctor tells me, ‘If you want to recover, then you have to quit because the pesticide is harming you, as it does towards many others in this world.’”

Farmworker Alondra has also witnessed the harmful impacts of pesticides on her community firsthand, and she wanted to bring light to this issue by sharing her experience. “Many children had died due to stomach cancer that they got from eating grapes that contained pesticides,” she said at the MiHistoria event.

Alondra worked with her local chapter of Líderes Campesinas to distribute educational flyers and put pressure on farmers to stop using the pesticides. “As time went by, I realized the damages pesticides can cause,” said Alondra. “Since then, I started planting my own veggies at home.”

In Solidarity with Farmworkers

As farmworkers work to organize together, we all have a responsibility to listen, learn, and take action for safe and equitable working conditions.

Albertina from MiHistoria said, “The best way to support farmworkers is through educating oneself about what really goes on in the fields. If you’d like to be more involved, there are local organizations you can support that are fighting for these rights. Many things can be done, but the first step is to be educated.”

Learn more and find resources at National Farmworker Awareness Week (March 25-31) and Programs That Protect and Empower Farmworkers.

Photos by Najib Joe Hakim.

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