It’s no secret that migrant farm workers on whom American agricultural industry depends often face deplorable conditions, from starvation wages to back-breaking labor. According to the National Agricultural Workers Survery, nearly three-quarters of U.S. farmworkers earn less than $10,000 a year, and three out of five farmworker families have incomes below the poverty line.
Now a recent incident in Washington state illustrates what happens when farmworkers try to stand up for themselves and demand fair compensation. Stemilt, one of the nation’s largest fruit producers, stranded dozens of workers hours away from their homes as retaliation when they refused to work for below the minimum wage:
Nearly 60 farmworkers from a rural Washington state community just outside of Seattle said they were stranded with no way to get home last week after refusing to work for less than minimum wage.
The workers were bused to a Stemilt Grower’s Apple Orchard, where they were told they’d only make roughly $25 for about four to five hours of work, local news station KIMA-TV reports. When the workers refused to pick for that amount, they say they were left stranded miles away from their homes. (The current federal minimum wage is $7.25.)
“It’s completely outrageous,” Gorge Valenzuela with United Farm Workers told KIMA-TV. “You have workers with no way home. They had to walk an hour and a half just to get to the street so they could wave at cars to find a way home, which is an hour and half away.”
The over 3 million migrant and seasonal workers in the U.S. are the backbone of the country’s $30 billion fruit and vegetable industry. In fact, farmworkers have been shown to increase the overall economic output of regions where they work. Yet they are some of the most economically disadvantaged people in the U.S. In addition to low wages, farmworkers rarely have access to workers compensation, disability benefits, Medicaid or food stamps.
Despite working harder than most segments of the population, farmworkers’ wages have declined dramatically over the past few decades, making it difficult to afford basic necessities like housing, food, health care and education for their children.