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Migrant Labor

Migrant Labor


During the Dust Bowl migration, more than half a million people left the American Plains and migrated to the western United States. John Steinbecks (19021968) novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) describes vividly the large migration of poor whites from Oklahoma to California during the 1930s. His book captures how individuals were affected by dramatic changes in agriculture. Now farming was an industry.... They imported slaves although they did not call them slaves: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, and Filipinos (Steinbeck 1939, p. 298). This quotation from Steinbecks novel points out that farming had changed. Industrialization in the United States in the late nineteenth century set the stage for changes in agriculture during the early twentieth century. Farm sizes grew across the United States, and farming became mechanized. Crops that previously required hand labor for harvesting, like cotton and beans, were being harvested by machines, which resulted in fewer jobs. These new mechanized farms were described as factories in the fields. At the same time, the need for hand labor became increasingly seasonal, creating a high demand for migrant labor that could follow specialty crops, like berries and grapes.

Steinbecks quotation also captures the racial and ethnic changes that farming in the United States experienced. Unlike the racial and ethnic composition of farm labor at the beginning of the twenty-first century, during the early twentieth century, farm labor was racially and ethnically diverse, and included whites and African Americans, as well as Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, Italian, and West Indian immigrants. Changes in U.S. laws regarding immigration and the impact of two world wars greatly affected the racial and ethnic composition of American farm labor. For instance, as World War I began in 1914 and as the United States attempted to halt immigration in the 1920s, the demand for farm laborers increased, and African American workers filled the need. Similarly, when the United States entered World War II in 1941, workers entered defense jobs and shipyards, which created a labor shortage in the fields. To fill this shortage, the United States created the Bracero Program, a temporary guest-worker program to recruit Mexican workers to the fields. The Bracero Program, instituted in the 1940s and ending in the 1960s, ensured that a large number of Mexican-origin people entered the agriculture industry in California as laborers. It is estimated that four million Mexican farm laborers began working in the United States during the programs twenty-two-year tenure. Even though the Bracero Program was meant to supply temporary employment, many braceros settled permanently in the United States.

In 2007 the majority of migrant laborers in the United States are of Mexican descent. Their poor treatment is compounded by racial/ethnic discrimination and xenophobic attitudes. Migrant workers are viewed by some as a drain on social services, even though they often do not use these services. At the same time, the demand for low-skilled labor has legislators ready to implement another guest-worker program. In March 2007,

Representatives Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced an immigrant worker visa bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, which allows foreigners to enter the United States legally to temporarily fill low-skill jobs, including agriculture and seasonal jobs. Guest-worker programs provide temporary labor without offering citizenship rights to workers. In essence, workers are expected to work and not create families or settle in the United States, but return home when their work visa ends. However, service workers, who work in hotels and restaurants, are not included in this provision, leaving them no way to work legally in the United States. The fear of another wave of settlement leaves undocumented immigration as the main alternative for workers, which ensures the denial of citizenship rights and makes them more vulnerable to exploitation.

Migrant farmworkers and their families are among the most vulnerable groups in society. Migrant workers face dangerous and poor working conditions. Basic necessities, like adequate drinking water, are not provided by employers, even though laborers may work in extreme heat. Many are forced to work without access to toilet or hand-washing facilities, even though washing hands regularly is important to avoid pesticide poisoning. Living conditions are also difficult for migrant farmworkers. Wages for farmwork have not kept up with inflation; consequently, it is difficult for families to afford basic necessities like housing, food, health care, and education for their children. In 2006 the United States Department of Labor findings from the National Farmworker Survey (collected in 1994 and 1995) reported that farmworkers have low individual earnings; the median annual income is between $2,500 and $5,000, and about three-fourths of all workers earn less than $10,000 annually.

The children of farmworkers are often found working with family members, despite laws outlawing child labor. Human Rights Watch (a nonprofit civil rights organization) estimates that there are between 300,000 and 800,000 child farmworkers in the United States. Children work an average of twelve hours a day, and during peak seasons as much as fourteen hours a day. Children report having difficulty getting paid minimum wages; some earn as little as $2 an hour. Children are routinely exposed to harmful pesticides, and report experiencing rashes, headaches, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. In addition to the demanding physical conditions, the children of migrant laborers lack access to education. When children work in the fields, it is nearly impossible for them to attend school. Children who do not work but migrate with their families have their education disrupted because of the constant need to relocate.

For many years, farmworkers sought to form a union. The creation of United Farm Workers by César Chávez (19271993) and Dolores Huerta was the result of a long struggle to unionize farmworkers. The Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), founded by Huerta, and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), founded by Chávez, were the first groups that attempted to organize farmworkers. By 1965 both were successful in obtaining wage increases after staging strikes and walkouts, but the organizations had not received union recognition from growers. In the summer of 1965, AWOC led Filipino farmworkers on a strike in Delano, California. They approached the NFWA and asked the mainly Chicano workers to join the strike. The NFWA agreed, and with the new strength in membership they launched a strike, with several thousand workers leaving the field. The growers offered to raise wages, but the organizations also wanted a union. To aid the effort, Chávez called on the American public to boycott grapes without union labels. Millions of Americans responded and stopped buying grapes. The workers won the long strike and established a union-run hiring hall, a health clinic and health plan, a credit union, a community center, and a cooperative gas station, as well as higher wages. The two unions merged into the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee in 1966.

In 2004, the International Labor Office (ILO) estimated that eighty-six million migrant and refugee adults work across the globe. Migration affects countries around the world because nearly every country serves as either a place of origin, destination, transit, or sometimes all of these at once. Each country struggles with the governments role in regulating migrant workers and with the social and economic incorporation of such workers. Guest-worker programs are often used to attract and regulate low-skilled and high-skilled workers. But there are concerns about the social and economic consequences of migrant labor. Migrant laborers leave families behind in their home countries, creating fragmented families and communities. In addition, men and women face differing labor opportunities, with women sometimes limited to factory or domestic labor. The economic consequences of migration are severe in developing countries. Nearly 400,000 scientists and engineers from developing countries are employed in research and development jobs in industrial countries. This migration of highly skilled workers creates a brain drain, leaving developing countries without highly skilled workers. Migrant workers face a risk to their human rights and fundamental freedoms, but this does not deter their migration; the hope of a better life ensures a steady flow of migrant laborers.

SEE ALSO Agricultural Industry; Bracero Program; Brain Drain; Chávez, César; Citizenship; Labor; Migration


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Migrant Workers


According to the United States Public Health Service, there are an estimated 3.5 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United Statesmen, women, and children who work in all fifty states during peak periods of agriculture. A migrant farmworker is an individual who moves from a permanent place of residence in order to be employed in agricultural work. Seasonal farmworkers perform similar work but do not move from their primary residence for the purpose of seeking farm equipment.

Migrant farmworkers tend to be either newly arrived immigrants or individuals with limited skills or opportunities. Although American agriculture depends on the labor of these workers, employment is usually of short duration and requires frequent moves. Many men travel without their families, and most workers return during the winter to a home base, usually in Florida, Texas, California, Puerto Rico, or Mexico. Migrant farmworkers are predominantly Latino (78 percent); 2 percent are African American, 18 percent Caucasian, less than 1 percent Caribbean, and less than 1 percent Asian. Almost half have less than a ninth grade education, and many speak little or no English. Children of migrant farmworkers often change schools several times a year.

Most migrant farmworkers earn annual incomes below the poverty level and few receive benefits such as Social Security or worker's compensation. The transient nature of their work often prevents them from establishing any local residency, excluding them from benefits such as Medicaid and foot stamps. The majority of migrant farmworkers are either U.S. citizens or legal residents of the United States. Some foreign workers enter the United States under guest-worker programs when there are not enough available workers to satisfy the demand.

Farm work is considered to be second only to mining in the rating of most hazardous occupations. There is a high exposure to pesticides through topical exposure, inhalation, and ingestion, resulting in the highest rate of toxic chemical injuries of any group in the United States. Farm injuries, exposure to heat and sun, and poor sanitation in the fields are other factors that contribute to the dangers of this work. Every year nearly three hundred children die and twenty-four thousand are injured in farm work.

Housing regulations attempt to provide decent living conditions for migrant workers, but housing is often overcrowded, poorly maintained, and lacking in ventilation, bathing facilities, and safe drinking water. These conditions contribute to an increased risk of accidents, sanitation-related diseases, and infectious diseases. Several studies have shown a 40 percent positivity rate in tuberculosis testing of migrant populations. One migrant farmworker group was found to have a 5 percent incidence of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection. Another study showed that 78 percent had parasitic infections.

Health care problems faced by migrant farmworkers are similar to those of other disadvantaged populations, but the factors of poverty, mobility, difficult living and working conditions, and cultural isolation put them more at risk for illness and injury. Those who work with migrant farmworkers find that, not only do common disease conditions occur more frequently, but they are often more severe because they are allowed to progress to more advanced stages before accessing care.

Unstable living and working conditions, conflicts arising from the process of acculturation, perceptions of mental illness, isolation, and discrimination all contribute to a high incidence of metal-health problems among migrant farmworkers. A 2000 study documented a 26.7 percent incidence of psychiatric disorders among a sample of male Mexican farmworkers in California. A national survey of migrant women showed that approximately 20 percent had experienced physical or sexual abuse during the previous year. These same factors make migrants more vulnerable to substance abuse, depression, and self-medication.

Migrant farmworkers themselves cite dental problems as one of their greatest health concerns. Gingivitis, dental caries, and baby bottle tooth decay are common.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy authorized the creation of a system of health care services specifically for migrant and seasonal farmworkers. The Migrant Health Program continues to be administered as part of the Bureau of Primary Health Care within the Health Resources and Services Administration, and consists of a national network of migrant health clinics. Studies have found, however, that these services were reaching less than 15 percent of the farmworkers in the United States.

It is a challenge to provide health care to the transient migrant farmworker in the context of the traditional health care system. Migrant health centers must attempt to provide health care services that are sensitive to the unique cultural, financial, and occupational needs of farmworkers. Staff must be able to communicate in the languages of the farmworkers, and clinic services must be offered in the evening, since farmworkers will not risk a loss of wages or employment by seeking care during work hours. Transportation services are often an essential component of migrant health programs.

Migrant health programs employ outreach programs to make services more available to farmworker patients. Clinicians often travel to farmworker camps in the evenings to assess and triage health problems. Multidisciplinary care is typicalnurses, health educators, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurse midwives, physicians, dentists, and others collaborate to provide necessary services. Lay health advisors are often recruited from the ranks of the farmworkers population and trained in basic preventive medicine. These individuals help to reinforce preventive health concepts through teaching, triage, and referral.

Providing continuity of care is a constant focus in migrant health care programs. A farm-worker may only be in one location a few weeks or months, so for services that require long-term attention, such as prenatal care or treatment of diabetes, follow-up must be carefully planned. Portable records with detailed treatment information are often given to farmworkers to present to other health care facilities as they travel. Electronic data-transfer systems have also been implemented to allow centers to communicate information such as immunization records and tuberculosis treatment.

Candace Kugel

Edward L. Zuroweste

(see also: Community and Migrant Health Centers; Fair Labor Standards Act; Farm Injuries; Health Resources and Services Administration; Occupational Safety and Health; Rural Public Health )


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migrant labor

migrant labor, term applied in the United States to laborers who travel from place to place harvesting crops that must be picked as soon as they ripen. Although migrant labor patterns exist in other parts of the world (e.g., Africa, Australia, Canada, Europe, and South America), none compares with the extent and magnitude of the system in the United States. Migrant laborers may travel on their own or they may be transported by a contractor who has agreed to supply the farmer with the needed workers. They may be urban dwellers who go on the land only for the season or migrants whose only means of living is to follow the crops from one place to another. Efforts to enforce sanitary conditions, prevent child labor, and protect the workers from exploitation met with only slight success until the 1960s.

In the 1930s, a combination of droughts, the depression, and the increased mechanization of farming prompted a migration of small farmers and laborers from Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas to the W United States. It was estimated that this type of permanent migrant worker, without home, voting privileges, or union representation, numbered more than 3 million. John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is a dramatic representation of the life of those migrants. In World War II another type of migrant worker sprang into being with the need for labor in the defense industries. These uprooted workers experienced housing problems, but they were protected by wage and hour laws that did not apply to agricultural labor.

Since the 1940s, thousands of workers each year have been brought into the United States from foreign countries, principally from Mexico. Migrant labor, which remains almost exclusively agricultural, continues to receive little legal protection. However, in the mid-1960s, under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, organization of migrant workers began in the West, mainly in California. In 1970, after years of strikes, marches, and a nationwide boycott, more than 65% of California's grape growers signed contracts with the AFL-CIO's United Farm Workers Organizing Committee headed by Chavez. That organization, which became a full-fledged union as the United Farm Workers (UFW) in 1972, had some success in negotiating contracts in other states as well. However, it found itself locked in a fierce struggle with the Teamsters Union, which also claimed to represent migrant laborers and succeeded in renegotiating many of the UFW's contracts in California. The Teamsters' attempt to break up the UFW led to many strikes and some violence. The rivalry also significantly reduced UFW's membership (down to 24,000 members in 1996, compared to 100,000 in the late 1970s).

See C. McWilliams, Factories in the Field (1939, repr. 1971); D. Nelkin, On the Season (1970); W. A. Cornelius, ed., The Changing Role of Mexican Labor in the U.S. Economy (1989); D. Cohen, Braceros (2011).

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Migrant Workers


Migrant workers are simply persons whose work routine includes relocation across or within national boundaries on a fairly frequent basis. They usually work at temporary jobs. Often they are seasonal workers employed in the agricultural sector of the economy. In that case the demand for their labor is determined by the growing cycles, as in the case of Mexican farm workers. For decades these workerscalled braceros moved across national borders in routine violation of laws that authorities largely overlooked because of the need for their labor. Migrant workers may also be non-seasonal, highly paid workers called upon to do highly skilled or particularly dangerous work like putting out oil derrick fires. They may be the combine crews in the Great Plains, moving south to north, harvesting the wheat as it ripens. Or they may be the thousands of tradesmen of various descriptions who follow the building boom from one part of the country to another.

On the other hand, "Okies," people from Oklahoma who left their farms in the dust storms of the 1920s and 1930s and made the trek to California, were workers who were migrating, rather than migrant workers. Immigrant Turkish workers in Germanyliving and working for years in the host country without ever breaking from the Turkish cultureare also not migrant workers. Nor are workers in the transportation industry. Airline stewardesses and truck drivers are not migrant workers even though moving about defines the job that they do.

The United States experienced the largest influx of immigrant workers between 1890 and 1914 when 15 million foreign citizens entered the country, mostly from eastern and southern Europe. In the history of American immigration, approximately one-third of these immigrant workers moved back to their home or on to other countries"birds of passage," in the colorful words of one immigration historian. If these workers were seeking permanent employment they were immigrant workers, rather than migrant workers.

Migrant workers, like other workers, stimulate the economy in two ways. First, they take hard, undesirable, low wage jobs, thereby minimizing the employers' costs. Second, they buy things and increase the size of the consumer population, thereby increasing demand. At the same time, jealousy and fear sometimes separates migrant workers from other Americans who objected that jobs were being lost to the newly available cheap labor.

See also: Cesar Chavez, Anti-Immigration Laws, Immigration, United Farm Workers


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