Rights of Farm Workers in the US

“2016 Book of Resolutions, #4134

The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of heavenly forces. —James 5:4b

Throughout Scripture we are taught the importance of respecting and rewarding work. The prophets decried economic systems that denied workers fair compensation and dignity and Christ’s ministry was centered on those individuals marginalized by society. Today, workers whose hands gather the fruits of God’s good earth are among the most marginalized—both economically and socially—in our communities. As the cries of the harvesters continue, we are called as a church to respond.

Farm workers are the men, women, and children who climb for our apples, oranges, and peaches, stoop for our cucumbers and strawberries, and dig for our sweet potatoes. The overwhelming majority of fruits and vegetables in the United States are hand-picked by some of the nation’s most vital workers, essential to the economic well-being of the United States. While conditions have improved for some farm workers through successful, and long-fought, organizing campaigns, the majority of farm workers continue to struggle with low wages, minimal legal protections, and unhealthy work environments.

The average income of the nearly two million farm workers in the United States is between $10,000 and $12,499 (Source: National Farm Worker Ministry and National Agricultural Survey). In some areas workers earn significantly less, often paid by piece rate, earning as little as forty cents per bucket of tomatoes or sweet potatoes collected. Women may receive less pay than men for the same work and face sexual discrimination, harassment, and abuse by crew leaders who control their jobs.

Agriculture is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. Farm workers face pesticide risks and suffer from the highest rate of toxic chemical injuries and skin disorders of any workers in the country. Children in the fields are particularly susceptible to the hazards of pesticides, and women who work in the fields have given birth to babies with severe birth defects, attributed by many to pesticide exposure. In recent years, workers across the United States have died in fields nationwide from heat exposure combined with lack of drinking water, shade, or breaks.

Farm workers face numerous obstacles to receiving health care including lack of transportation, lack of paid sick leave and risk of job loss if they miss work. Only a small number of them are covered by health insurance. Most farm workers are immigrants who have come to the United States to seek a better life for their families. Many here today were once farmers in their own countries who have been driven from their land, unable to compete with the price of subsidized crops from the United States. The majority of farm workers are undocumented and with strict enforcement of the southern US border, many have not seen their families for years. An increasing number of farm workers arrive through the H2-A agricultural guest worker program, some from as far away as Thailand. Isolated in remote labor camps without transportation, these workers are in particular need of outreach, support, and ministry from the community.

Farm workers were excluded from federal laws passed in the 1930’s to protect workers, such as the National Labor Relations Act and those mandating overtime pay and minimum wage. Few states require overtime pay for farm workers and minimum wage statutes apply to workers on large farms only. Laws designed to protect farm workers are often not enforced. Furthermore, workers often fear firing or deportation if they speak up about abuses.

When asked what farm workers expected from churches, Cesar Chavez responded, “We wanted the church to be present with us, beside us, willing to sacrifice for justice, ready to be Christ among us.”

Farm workers call on us to stand in solidarity with them to change unjust conditions and scripture calls us to respond. As Christians, we cannot sit silently as our brothers and sisters are exploited and abused, but rather following the teachings of Christ we must ensure that the men and women who harvest our food are invited to share fully in the fruits of their labor.

The United Methodist Church:

  • publicly denounces any and all mistreatment of farm workers and repents of any complicity that we hold as consumers and often-silent participants in and beneficiaries of an exploitive food production and distribution system;

  • demands that employers treat farm workers and their families with dignity and respect; and that corporate processors, food retailers, and restaurants take responsibility in proportion to the power they possess for the treatment of the farm workers in their supply chains;

  • advocates for policies that ensure the workers who harvest food for US families are not separated from their own families;

  • calls on the General Board of Church and Society, the General Board of Global Ministries, annual conferences, and local churches to support state and federal legislation, particularly initiatives developed by farm-worker organizations, that would strengthen the laws protecting farm workers’ rights and provide the funding necessary for adequate enforcement of laws protecting farm workers’ rights, health, and safety;

  • celebrates that farm worker organizing campaigns have resulted in labor agreements producing significant change in farm workers’ lives, including wage increases, benefits, pesticide protection, and treatment with respect;

  • commits itself to work in cooperation with the National Farm Worker Ministry whose primary mission is supporting farm workers organizing for justice and empowerment;

  • urges annual conferences, especially where farm workers live and work, to use personal and institutional resources to encourage recognition of farm workers’ rights to a voice in the agricultural industry, including representation and good faith bargaining;

  • urges local churches to identify and reach out to farm workers in their communities, including those in the H2-A guest worker program;

  • urges local faith communities, through worship, education, and calls to action, to remember and honor farm workers for the work they do and the hope they offer us through their courage, persistence, and faith; and

  • urges the United Methodist Committee on Relief to consider the needs of farm workers when administering relief efforts.


See Social Principles, ¶ 163H.

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Copyright © 2016, The United Methodist Publishing House, used by permission