Migrant Labor, Immigration, and Food Production

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Editors: Brenda Wilmoth Lerner and K. Lee Lerner
Date: 2011
Food: In Context
From: Food: In Context(Vol. 2. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Series: In Context Series
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Migrant Labor, Immigration, and Food Production


Migrant laborers are people who move from one region to another to secure employment. Many of the world's migrants earn their livings by working in agriculture. The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) both list agriculture among the most dangerous occupations worldwide.

Most migrant laborers are adult men who work in a location geographically remote from their homes and families. They frequently send a majority of their earnings back home to support relatives. The typical pattern of migrant worker movement is from less-developed nations to wealthier nations or from poorer rural regions to wealthier urbanized areas. In regions with fluid borders or for migrant farm workers who remain in their home nations, many return home at the end of the agricultural season. However, agricultural migrant workers who cross borders without documented immigration status or who obtain long-term work visas often do not return to their places of origin. Some migrant agricultural workers move from job to job with their families, with multiple family members working in the fields or processing plants.

Agricultural interests, especially in developed nations, assert that migrant farm labor is an essential element in reducing consumer food costs. In the United States, various studies estimate the potential cost of staple vegetables (such as tomatoes) would likely rise by 25 to 40 percent without the current supply of migrant agricultural workers. Debates over migrant labor in food production concern issues of immigration, human rights, fair wages, child labor, and food security.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

In the United States, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938. The act guaranteed a minimum wage, outlawed almost all child labor, and capped the number of hours in a standard workweek. The act, however, exempted agricultural workers. By 1945 there were 550,000 hired farm workers in the United States who migrated around with the harvest schedules of popular crops. On average, these workers worked less than 75 days per year and made an average annual family income of less than $1,000.

The U.S. government introduced the Bracero guest worker program during World War II (1939–1945) to help replace agricultural workers who had joined the war effort. The program permitted Mexican agricultural workers to legally work and reside in the United States. When the program ended in 1964, 5 million Mexican workers had come to work in the United States. Migrant workers for other nations entered the United States under the Guest Worker Program that created the H2 visa program. After Bracero ended, demand remained for migrant labor in agriculture that outstripped the number of H2 visas set aside annually. The supply of workers did not abate, but an increasing number of migrant workers were of undocumented immigration status.

In 1960 journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965) drew attention to the plight of migrant agricultural workers in the United States with his documentary Harvest of Shame. The special television program aired just after Thanksgiving Day in order to highlight American's dependence on the people who picked their abundant food. Murrow stated that he hoped the graphic pictures of how migrant farm workers lived and the working conditions they endured would “shock the conscience” of his audience.

In the mid-1960s a grassroots movement among farm workers began demanding better pay, safer working conditions, and better housing. Activists César Chávez (1927–1993) and Dolores Huerta (1930–) led the unionization of some migrant farm workers, protesting working conditions and forcing employers to bargain with unions by instituting large-scale boycotts of some foods. In August 1965 a strike of Mexican and Filipino grape workers in Delano, California, was supported by Chávez's United Farm Workers of America (UFWA), resulting in a Page 565  |  Top of Articlefive-year consumer boycott of grapes by supporters. The grape boycott ended when employers agreed to recognize and give concessions to unionized farm workers.

Debate over illegal immigration and the rights of undocumented farm workers became a fixture of U.S. politics. The 1983 Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA) provided pay, housing, transportation, and working-hours protections to migrant and seasonal agricultural workers. However, it exempted a large portion of the migrant agricultural workforce that the law considered independent contractors. In 1986, the U.S. Immigrant Reform and Control Act granted amnesty to undocumented Mexican migrants who could prove they had at least 60 days of employment in the United States during 1985 and part of 1986. The law extended legal permanent resident status to more than 1.2 million agricultural workers.

Migrant agricultural work is not limited to farms in the United States. During the twentieth century, more of the global population moved to seek employment than at any other time in modern history.

Impacts and Issues

China and India have the world's largest populations of migrant workers. However, migrant workers in India and China are typically leaving agricultural employment and agricultural regions to seek employment in cities. In China, as machinery has replaced millions of jobs on state-run collective farms that once ran on an abundance of labor, Chinese workers have left farming villages in record numbers. Migrant workers in China are typically unemployed agricultural workers who seek out urban jobs in construction, manufacturing, or sanitation. They comprise 9 percent of China's population, almost 150 million people. The migrant labor force in China is expected to reach 250 million by 2015 and 300 million by 2025.

Crop failures, low crop prices, and depressed agricultural wages drive India's migrants away from agriculture. India has 100 million migrant workers, approximately 10 percent of whom seek employment outside of India. Those who settle abroad typically work as farm workers in Canada and Australia or in service sector jobs in Europe or the United States. Whereas agricultural production has not declined in either India or China since 2000, some experts worry that abandoned farmland and rapidly expanding, typically poor, urban migrant worker populations could threaten food security.

In the European Union (EU), migrant workers tend to be both leaving agricultural work and migrating to take agricultural employment. As the EU expanded to include former Soviet-satellite nations in Eastern Europe, migrant workers sought employment in Western European nations. Agricultural migrant workers in the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Germany tend to be from the EU's newest member countries.

Sidebar: HideShow


INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR: A person who contracts to do a specified project or type of work for another person using his or her own resources and processes to accomplish the work; an independent worker rather than an employee.

MIGRANT WORKER: A person who moves from one region to another to find or follow employment. Migrant workers are used extensively in agriculture, moving frequently during the course of the year to follow the harvest seasons.

UNDOCUMENTED (WORKER): A person of unverified immigration status; someone who entered a country without advance permission, entered without required paperwork, or who cannot prove that he or she legally entered a country under its immigration laws.

VISA: A certificate or other evidence of permission to enter a country legally for work, residential, or visiting purposes.

The EU offers cross-boundary employment opportunities among member states. However, the EU also has a sizable population of undocumented migrant farm workers, predominantly from African nations. Whereas migrant farm workers throughout the EU have been found to be living in difficult conditions and working for low pay, African migrant workers, who predominantly work in Italy and Greece, often live in makeshift encampments with no food or electricity. A 2008 EU study found that African migrant fruit pickers in southern Italy earned the lowest wages, often less than 20 euros per day. African migrant agricultural laborers, regardless of their immigration documentation status, have experienced harassment by employers and authorities, had their encampments razed, and been deported. Many agricultural businesses in the region admit that they depend on migrant labor to bolster profit margins, harvest the entirety of their crop, and keep consumer food prices lower.

In the Americas, migrant farm workers predominantly come from the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South American nations to work in the United States and Canada. The 2007 National Agricultural Workers Study, conducted by the Department of Labor, found that 75 percent of migrant farm workers in the United States were from Mexico and that as many as half were of undocumented immigration status. U.S. agriculture needs 2 million seasonal or migrant workers per year; however, the United States offers only between 5,000 and 20,000 agricultural worker visas per year. Since 2000, the median annual income for Latino migrant farm workers in the United States has remained around $10,000.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) contends that a worldwide rethinking about the economics and human costs of migrant farm labor is needed. Page 566  |  Top of ArticleDespite the proliferation of national laws protecting the health, safety, and wages of some agricultural workers, many others remain in precarious employment conditions. The ILO asserts that all migrant workers have several fundamental rights: the right to voluntary and unforced labor, freedom from child labor and access to education, adequate wages, access to medical care, freedom from violence or intimidation, the right to join a union and collectively bargain for improvements in pay and working conditions, and the elimination of discriminatory hiring and employment practices.

A Mexican migrant worker culls, prunes, and weeds grape plants by hand in a Kern County, California, vineyard. A Mexican migrant worker culls, prunes, and weeds grape plants by hand in a Kern County, California, vineyard. Image copyright Richard Thornton. Used under license from Shutterstock.com.

Critics of international migrant labor contend that an influx of migrants willing to work for substandard wages drives down wages for everyone in the agricultural industry. Others contend that immigrant laborers are taking jobs that might otherwise be filled with residents of the host nations. In 2010 the United Farm Workers, a U.S.-based union of agricultural workers, announced the Take Our Jobs program. The program invited unemployed Americans to work in the fields alongside migrant farm workers and was intended to counter immigration critics claim that migrant workers take jobs away from U.S. residents. Few people accepted the challenge to work in the fields; most could not handle the physical demands of the jobs. U.S. television personality and comedian Stephen Colbert (1964–) worked in the fields picking beans and packing corn as part of the Take Our Jobs program, filming parts of the workday for a segment on his late-night show. Colbert later testified before Congress on the need for better visa programs, improved wages, and better living conditions for migrant workers on U.S. farms.

Worldwide, child labor remains a problem among agricultural migrant worker populations. The international nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that most children of migrant farm workers work in the fields alongside their parents at least part of the year. Children in migrant labor populations suffer from abundant safety hazards, exposure to pesticides and chemicals, disrupted schooling, and are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes and sexual assaults. HRW considers migrant agricultural labor a threat to childhood, which they assert—in accordance with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights—is a fundamental right. In the world's poorest regions, child labor on a farm can be an economic necessity for a household. Child labor in agriculture is not limited to the developing world: U.S. regulations permit children as young as 12 to do limited work with parental permission. Globally, children of migrant laborer parents who work in agriculture are the most likely children to work and are among the least likely to attend school.



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Web Sites

“NOW with Bill Moyers: Migrant Labor in the United States.” PBS.org, May 28, 2004. http://www.pbs.org/now/politics/migrants.html (accessed November 3, 2010).

Stoddard, Ed. “Agriculture Dependent on Migrant Workers.” Reuters, July 23, 2007. http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN1526113420070723 (accessed November 3, 2010).

Adrienne Wilmoth Lerner

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1918600173