In many rural regions, farm and food system work is one of the primary employment options. Federal law exempts agriculture workers from basic workplace protections, and most states follow that precedent. Given that most food and agriculture workers are people of color, the exemption disproportionately harms Black and brown people.
Labor Protections for Vulnerable Populations
Food and farmworkers have long been on the front lines of disasters. From COVID-19 to climate events, farmworkers often lack protections from both ongoing workplace dangers and disasters. Policy at both the federal and state level has attempted to provide some protections from issues like extreme heat, smoke, and weather events, but more protections are needed. Laws and regulations are also needed to protect food and farmworkers from toxic chemicals and pesticides, which put female farmworkers at increased risk, as exposure can impact reproductive health.
Meatpacking plants and other companies are also increasingly using forced and unpaid labor by incarcerated people, citing labor shortages. Federal law bans products produced by prison labor from interstate commerce, but agricultural products are exempt. Some states have tried to make it easier for companies to use penal labor, while some companies have pitched unpaid work in a processing plant as a rehabilitation program for inmates.
- Federal: Support farmworkers by passing the Fairness For Farmworkers Act, a bill that would give farmworkers equal rights to overtime pay and minimum wage standards.
- Federal: Pass the Child Labor Exploitation Accountability Act, which ensures USDA contractors comply with labor laws, expands child labor laws to independent contractors, and increases penalties for child labor law violations.
- State: Enact a farmworker bill of rights and labor standards.
- State: Make it unlawful to force an inmate to work against their will.
- State: Require prison industries to pay a federal minimum inmate wage to incarcerated persons doing work.
Colorado (2021 CO SB 87) legislators enacted a Farmworker Bill of Rights, which eliminates the minimum wage and overtime exemption for farmworkers; grants the right to organize and join labor unions; and offers new protections against heat stress, illnesses, and injury.
New York (2019 NY A 8419) passed a Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act that provides farm laborers with collective bargaining rights, a maximum of 60 hours’ work and minimum 24 hours’ rest per week, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, sanitary temporary housing, and workers’ compensation benefits.
New York (2021 NY S416) has considered a bill to make it unlawful to force an inmate to work against their will and to prohibit a public entity from profiting from unpaid inmate labor.
Mississippi (2021 MS HB 408) has considered a bill to require prison industries to pay a federal minimum inmate wage to incarcerated persons doing work.
In California (2020 CA AB 2147), where incarcerated people are often enlisted to fight wildfires, legislators enacted a law to allow these people to have their records expunged at the end of their sentence, to make it easier for them to find post-prison work in emergency response.