Agricultural and food system employment has historically been associated with poor wages and limited access to health care options. Farm workers and agricultural laborers are commonly known for working long hours in potentially dangerous conditions. Individuals involved in food production and service for wages are often find at risk of hunger, diet-related chronic diseases, unsafe living and working conditions, and inadequate access to health care. Prompted by consumer demand for products that are sustainable across both social and environmental dimensions, and increased policy and regulatory attention, food supply chain actors are increasingly shifting toward production and operations models that provide adequate wages and working conditions for employees.
Food workers and those occupations that are considered part of the food employment sector include production focused farmworkers, slaughterhouse and processing facility workers, distribution or warehouse workers, retail store workers, and service industry workers. These positions account for almost one-sixth of the workforce in the United States. Of the food system employees, almost 90% are considered “front line workers”. These employees directly interact with food products during work, while the remaining portion of the sector is comprised of office workers, supervisors, professionals, managers, and CEOs (Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Employment and Wages”).
Addressing social responsibility and workers rights is often associated with promoting “fair labor”. While there is no single comprehensive set of agricultural labor standards defining “fair,” there are a variety of organizations that attempt to address the most important conventions for fairness. The International Labor Organization, for example, promotes decent work, which means wages and working hours that can sustain workers, provide proper safety and health, eliminate child labor, provide equal treatment of workers, and freedom of association and collective bargaining. A fair food system will necessarily include competitive prices for farmers, equal access to food for all individuals, and safe conditions with adequate wages for workers. Proper legal mechanisms to support the laborers responsible for the food system can promote a sustainable production system.
Market demands for cheap and plentiful food have kept wages low across much of the food sector. Food service work - such as food preparation and serving workers, dishwashers, baristas, and fast food cooks - accounts for many of the lowest paying jobs in the United States. California leads the nation in agricultural employment, with an estimated 800,000 hired farmworkers. The hourly earnings of California farm workers have historically been higher than in the rest of US agriculture, but the cost of living is also higher in California.
In 2016, Governor Jerry Brown backed Senate Bill No. 3 to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022 for large businesses, and by 2023 for small businesses. Starting in 2024 the wage would be indexed to the cost of living. An estimated 5.6 million workers would receive wage increases under the proposal, representing 37% of the California workforce. Many of the workers that would benefit currently hold positions within the food system. Certain jobs in the food system, however, are exempt from these regulations and employ workers who earn less than the minimum wage rate. Restaurant servers, for example, may receive much of their income as tips and are not lawfully entitled to earn an hourly rate that would allow these workers to consistently remain at or above the minimum wage.
UC studies in food system employment and labor have included investigating potential for increased efficiencies across supply chains, more affordable housing options for food system laborers, and the effects of increases in technologies to substitute manual farm labor with mechanization.
UC Davis houses Migration Dialogue, which provides information and analysis of international migration issues, which includes farm labor migration. The Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at UC Davis works to improve the health and safety of farmers, farm workers, and their families in Western agriculture.
UC Berkeley is home to the Food Labor Research Center. The institution was founded by Saru Jayaraman in 2012 to study the intersection between food and labor. A recognized knowledge leader in fair labor practices across the food industry, the Food Labor Research Center examines issues related to harassment and racial discrimination in the restaurant workplace, alternative hiring and management models, and the role that policy reform can play in social equity across the sector.
The UC Berkeley School of Public Health has a Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health. Some research from this center examines the effects of agriculture-related toxin exposure, such as through pesticides and fertilizers, on child health and development. The CHAMACOS Study looks specifically at children raised by farmworkers in Salinas Valley and the effects of environmental pollutants.
The Center for Research on Society Change, a subset of Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at UC Berkeley, is engaged in a variety of projects regarding inequality and labor issues.
The UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) has worked to identify the key issues facing agricultural workers and where opportunities might exist to promote improved conditions. The Research and outreach agenda for farmworkers established by SAREP includes a focus on the worker-related impacts of health care, technology, housing, farm labor intermediaries, and market-based certification efforts.
There are a number of labor research and outreach groups, such as the Labor Occupational Health Program, which is the community outreach portion of the Center for Occupational & Environmental Health (COEH). The COEH serves the government, industries, schools, health professionals, and the general public through programs which focus on understanding potential occupational and environmental hazards and to prevent disease, fatalities, and injuries. Activities run by the COEH include multi-campus teaching programs in medicine, nursing, and other fields related to public and environmental health.
UC has also established a partnership with the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS). Current projects include studies focused on topics such as heat-related illness prevention and farmworker food security. Results from these studies are used to help initiate and justify public policy action related to promoting worker rights, especially focused on agricultural laborers.
Contributors: Leigh Archer, Bev Ransom, Mariah Coley
Reviewed by: Phil Martin, Professor Emeritus, Agricultural and Resource Economics
How to cite this page
UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. 2017. "Fair Labor Issues." What is Sustainable Agriculture? UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. <https://sarep.ucdavis.edu/sustainable-ag/employment>