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The Plight of Migrant Workers
Carina Diaz Garcia worked in Morelos, Mexico earning seven dollars every thirty-five hours. She decided to move to America to start a new life there with opportunities for her one-year-old child. She struggled through the desert with her young son, dodging the border patrol the entire time. She ran out of food and water. Carina, who was injured on her journey, passed dead people as she walked, but continued and finally made it to America.
When she got to America, she was surprised to find that horrible pay and awful working conditions made her life just as difficult as it had been in Mexico.
Migrant workers across the U.S. have similar stories to tell of coming to a country where they are forced into low paying jobs with horrible conditions.
Just how many migrant workers work in the U.S. every year? Although it’s hard to know the exact number, there are probably over 31 million. Seventy- eight percent are men, and twenty- two percent are women, but the number of female migrant workers is growing. Many men migrated to the U.S. in search of jobs so they could send money back to their families. With border patrol getting tighter, men can’t come home, and women are coming to America to work. Many of these men and women take jobs as farm workers; seventy-two percent of farm workers are foreign born, and sixty eight percent are Mexicans. Most of these workers are here illegally; only thirty- three percent are U.S. citizens.
As with Carina Diaz Garcia, many farm workers have escaped from hard lifestyles in Mexico. Eighty percent of people in rural Mexico earn less than two dollars a day. Many people can’t find education for their children in Mexico, so they move to the U.S., but most didn’t receive much education themselves. Forty percent of migrant farm workers only received education up to sixth grade.
The conditions for migrant workers, especially farm workers, aren’t much of an improvement over what they experienced in Mexico, or other countries. In fact, farm work ranks up in the top three most dangerous jobs in the U.S. Pesticides from tractors cause major health problems for farm workers, but many don’t know these chemicals are dangerous, and do not take any precautions. Workers tend to have injured backs and legs, from bending over to plant seeds. These health problems often cannot be addressed because workers lack transportation to get to hospitals, and have no money to pay for medical treatment. The typical farm worker will have a ten-hour workday seven days a week. This does not include the hours spent taking care of children, cooking dinner, cleaning the house, etc. According to Commonweal magazine, in the article Vela la Pena? one farm worker was quoted saying “I work from five in the morning to ten at night,” because she had three children to care for after a long day at the farm.
The children of migrant farm workers also have a difficult life. They often have to live in labor camps, which can have horrible conditions, but which workers can do nothing about, especially if they are illegal. Thirty percent of farm workers in Coachella Valley in California live in places not meant for human habitation like garages or cars. They do not have enough money to live in proper housing. Eighty- nine percent of labor camps in North Carolina violate the Migrant Housing Act of North Carolina, and are not suitable to live in.
Many problems with bad living conditions come from lack of money, but low pay isn’t the only problem with migrant farm worker’s wages. They rarely have access to benefits such as occupational rehabilitation, workers compensation, or disability compensation benefits. Only two percent of migrant workers claim to receive Social Security payments.
There are some laws giving migrant workers their rights. There is an established minimum wage and minimum age for child labor, but this law is often ignored in the farming industry. Another law protecting workers is the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which states that an employer with eleven or more employees must provide drinking water. This law is also followed loosely.
What can be done to stop the mistreatment of migrant farm workers? To start, our political leaders could reform our immigration policies enabling migrant workers to get guest worker permits allowing them to work legally here. If these workers were legal, their employers could not take advantage of them as they often do now. Secondly, the government could ensure the existing regulations protecting the safety of migrant workers are enforced.
The most challenging issue is migrant worker’s wages. One possible solution to this problem is to raise the price of food and pass the increase to the migrant workers. I interviewed some members of my community, and found most were willing to buy food at a higher price if they knew it was going to the migrant workers harvesting it.
In America, food is cheap and abundant. Can we not spare a little extra money to pay these workers for their labor? As Ana, a migrant farm worker states, “All we’re doing is working. We’re not hurting anyone. When people eat their delicious food, they need to think about who picks it: us.”