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Perspective: A better environment for Hispanic farm workers can — and needs to — be done

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For decades now, agriculture has had the highest percentage of Hispanic labor out of any industry in the U.S. The University of Kentucky writes that, “More than half the hired farmworkers (51%) are Hispanic, compared to about one-fifth (19%) of the national workforce.”

Migrant labor — and Hispanic workers in particular — play a huge role in U.S. food production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that there are over a half a million hired Hispanic farm workers in the U.S. right now. Yet the impact that they have on the economy is often overlooked.

Agriculture contributes over $1 trillion to the nation’s GDP, which is over 5 percent. In a Forbes publication on 2021’s first quarter GDP contributions, the agriculture sector has already contributed over $500 billion.

These statistics would not be achievable without Hispanic labor.

Image courtesy of Amber Parrow

Would the U.S. agriculture industry be able to keep it up without Hispanic labor? The answer is probably not. With the big debate on how many hours should justify a work week on a farm, farmers are scrambling for labor right now. Hispanic workers tend to come for a few years, or a few months out of the year, so that they can earn money and return back to their families. Hispanic workers want as many hours as possible, which tends to be above 60 hours a week.

Farms generally are looked at as a lifestyle rather than a business, but this old mindset is changing. With more focus on a work-life balance and a flexible schedule, fewer people want to commit to so many hours a week. Hispanic workers are willing to work the hours no matter the weather, day of the week, or pay. This has pushed farm jobs out of the picture for many people looking for work.

The expectations are high, and the impact that Hispanic workers have on the whole ag industry is immense, yet working and living conditions for Hispanic workers too often tend to be sub-par. Most people in the U.S. push for better work environments and working conditions, but Hispanic labor is being left behind.

Employers often provide housing to Hispanic workers who do not own a home, but these houses can get quite crowded. While these houses have to meet certain standards and are subject to inspection, they are not an ideal place to live. Sometimes this type of housing situation can decrease employee morale. It is hard to go to work with the same people you live with day in and day out.

Fair wages is a hot topic in the U.S. right now under President Joe Biden’s race to raise the minimum wage. Yet CNBC reports that Hispanic workers are making only about 55 cents per dollar that a typical White male makes in the U.S. It is possible that this gap will continue to get worse. For Hispanic workers who are undocumented, employers are able to pay them less, or not provide basic insurance that other employees have.

It is important that all employees in every industry have fair working conditions and benefits. Agriculture is a tough industry to be in due to it being hard labor, and the fact that many workers are working outside so often. But creating a better work environment for Hispanic workers can be done.

Some farms are bringing in translators or English teachers to promote better communication in the workplace. Spanish fluency is slowly creeping in as a job requirement for managers in the ag industry. And many farms have been embracing the culture that their workers bring to the table. The ag industry has a long way to go when it comes to employee equality, but slowly it is getting there.

 

Elizabeth Maslyn is a Cornell University student pursuing a career in the dairy industry. Her passion for agriculture has driven her desire to learn more, and let the voices of our farmers be heard.

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