Hired farmworkers are a large proportion of farm labor today, especially on larger farms. At more than one million workers, seasonal and year-round hired workers now make up more than one-third of the agricultural labor force. Hired workers are particularly important for labor-intensive crops such as fruit, tree nuts, and vegetables, and on confinement livestock operations. These workers earn less than most U.S. workers (about $9 an hour in 2010), face difficult working conditions, have limited education and health care options, and are heavily foreign-born. It is estimated that more than one-half are not legally authorized to work in the United States, and have not been for more than two decades.
Farm-labor policies are controversial. The H-2A guest worker program certifies only about 75,000 to 100,000 temporary foreign workers per year and is considered cumbersome and expensive by many growers. Growers complain about farm labor shortages, and some have lost crops when workers were unavailable. Recently, farm industry leaders have pressed for immigration reform to provide a more reliable supply of legal foreign agricultural workers. At the same time, some farmworker groups are concerned that expanded foreign guest worker programs will lower farm wages and worsen working conditions. Efforts to compromise have been complicated by larger congressional debates and disagreements on the best approaches to overarching immigration reform.
Agriculture labor and its related issues are not confined to fields and farms. Today, more people are working in the agricultural input and food processing sectors than in growing and raising food and livestock. Many food processing jobs, like farm labor jobs, tend to offer low wages ($12 an hour in 2010 on average) and rely increasingly on the same immigrant labor pool.
A critical objective of future farm and food policy should be to improve wages and working conditions throughout the food and agriculture sectors, and to support comprehensive immigration policy reform that recognizes the importance of immigrant labor in these industries. Efforts to improve the skills, supply, and working conditions of the farm and food labor force will require careful balancing of the goals of improving social justice, individual opportunity, community well-being, and the competitiveness of farm and food businesses.