Employment Arrangements Common Among Farmworkers

Why employment arrangement matters: It is estimated that there are over 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States.1 While migrant workers typically travel across state and national borders within the year to work, seasonal workers generally live permanently in the local area. Seasonal workers look for other work during winter months. In addition, there is a growing trend for migrant and seasonal farmworkers to move into more permanent forms of agricultural employment, such as dairy, and meat or vegetable processing.

Agricultural workers can be employed directly by the farm, employed by a labor contractor, or through a guest-worker program (H2A workers). Which of these employment arrangements a worker has can have a profound effect on his/her health. For example, length of employment, working conditions, relationship with the employer, and sense of autonomy and empowerment to raise concerns are all factors that can affect health, and vary according to type of employment arrangement. Following are the most common farmworker employment arrangements:

Farmworkers hired directly by the farm

  • For the season – typically done on small farms, where employer needs 10 or fewer workers. Farm owners may have established relationships with groups of farmworkers who return year after year. Frequently they communicate with them before the season in their home country by phone. Whether this is a healthy and safe work environment is largely dependent on the farm owner, and his/her level of awareness and concern.
  • Hired by the day – In large farmworker areas (West and Southwest), farmworkers are sometimes hired on a daily basis, hired temporality on the spot as they wait in a designated “round up” area. This is the most risky form of employment, since the employer has no particular incentive to hire that worker the next day. Farmworkers frequently report that when they report and injury, illness or safety problem, they are not hired back the next day.

Farmworkers hired by a contractor

All across the country, in areas where large numbers of workers are needed for variable lengths of time (and in dairy work also), contractors often hire workers themselves and contract them out to farms. In these types of situations, the contractor often manages the worker, although in recent court cases, it has been found that the farm owner is still legally responsible for working conditions and worker treatment. As with farm direct hires, this type of arrangement is highly variable, although the labor contractor typically works with many more workers than would a small farmer, and he/she has much less motivation to preserve a good personal relationship. Therefore, one should have a higher level of suspicion for mistreatment.

Federal H2A guest worker program

(There is a proposal under consideration to include dairy in this; currently it is only crop workers)

The H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program allows agricultural employers to hire workers from other countries on temporary work permits to fill agricultural jobs that last ten months or less. To bring in H-2A guestworkers, employers must first show that they have tried and are unable to find U.S. workers to meet their labor needs. Under this program, employers must pay a “prevailing wage,” which is generally higher than minimum wage.

Although the H-2A program includes some basic requirements to protect U.S. workers from negative effects on their wages and working conditions, there is still concern that their temporary, non-citizen status makes it difficult to raise health and safety concerns. See H2A Guest Worker Program.

1Larson, Alice; Plascencia, Luis. “Migrant Enumeration Study”. Washington, D.C.: Office of Minority Health, 1993