The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released a new report called Injustice on our Plates:  Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry which looks at the conditions under which immigrant women work.  It documents and personalizes the stories of women who have made the dangerous journey to the U.S. seeking a better life for themselves and their families, only to end up working long hours under extremely difficult and dangerous conditions.

Entering the U.S. surreptitiously is extremely difficult for anyone, but particularly for vulnerable women crossing alone or with small children.  According to SPLC, some academics and humanitarian organizations estimate that as many as six out of 10 women and girls experience some sort of sexual violence during the journey.  Some do not make it at all.  In the five-year period from FY2000 to FY2004, border officers recovered the remains of an average of 61 migrant women a year along the 1,952-mile Southwestern border. In the latest five-year period — from FY2005 to FY2009 — that number jumped to 77.

Many of the women who make it to the U.S. safely are confronted with the horrendous working and living conditions made possible because of the existence of a group of vulnerable, desperate, and disposable workers.  Many of the women interviewed complained about the difficulty supporting their families when they make minimum wage, or even less, and wage theft is common.  To earn their meager wages, immigrant women perform hard physical labor and have few rights or protections.

Working in the fields can be backbreaking, and workers are exposed to dangerous pesticides.  An interview with Isabel, who picked strawberries, revealed:

Working in these fields takes a physical toll. At times, Isabel must spend whole days hunched over. In addition, we “have a lot of hand movement and use big scissors to cut the little branches and cutters for the big branches.” At the end of the day, the pain can be numbing, Isabel says. “Sometimes I don’t feel my hands. I feel like an animal bit me. I have a pulsing in my arms, and I feel the pain when I sleep. It’s like biting me. It’s intolerable the pain, from using the scissors so much.” She also suffers from headaches from the pesticides. “It’s such a strong smell,” she says. “When I start to breathe that in, my head starts to hurt, and I feel nauseated.”

Work in meat processing plants is also extremely dangerous, and few workers have access to safety equipment.  Workers become crippled by the strenuous and repetitive motions of the work.  Many of the female workers reported being restricted from using the restroom, while others spoke of sexual abuse, and discrimination against pregnancy.  According to SPLC:

The women are even more vulnerable in the workplace than their male counterparts. They are often the primary caregivers for children, making them less likely to assert their rights for fear of being fired or, worse, being deported and separated from their families. And because of their fear of being reported to immigration authorities, they are reluctant to report wage violations, sexual violence or gender discrimination, or to take legal action to stop it.

How are these conditions allowed to exist in the U.S.?  SPLC notes that farmworkers are the least protected workers in America. They were specifically excluded from labor laws passed during the New Deal era, and today are not eligible for workers compensation in many states, and are not entitled to overtime pay or minimum wage under federal law.  They are excluded from many state health and safety laws, and even child labor laws do not apply in some cases.  Furthermore, farmworkers also are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Every day, Americans are benefitting from the hard work of these immigrant women who work to put inexpensive food on our tables.  In one hour “Rosa” cleans and debones enough chicken breasts to sell for $900, but she earns $6.25 for that hour of work.  Another immigrant woman makes $2.50 for every tray of grape tomatoes she picks. During a good 12-hour workday, she gathers a dozen trays, about 300 pounds. That’s $30 a day – far less than minimum wage.  Yet her one-day tomato harvest retails for as much as $1,000.

Americans could spend a tiny bit more on food and increase workers’ earnings.  However, there is much resistance, and ultimately large companies who do not want to pay more can buy imported food rather than pay higher prices for U.S. food.

Perhaps more importantly, measures could be taken to ensure that undocumented workers receive the same protections as other workers, leaving them far less vulnerable.  The SPLC report ends with recommendations for the Department of Homeland Security, Congress, the Department of Labor and other federal agencies who could take actions to improve the lives of the immigrant workers who produce our food.  Passage of comprehensive immigration reform legislation tops the list, of course.  Ultimately, all workers need to be on a level playing field which starts with obtaining legal status, and the immigration system must provide a way for needed workers to work in the U.S. legally and be protected by employment and labor laws.

Photo by PNASH.