A Visible Struggle of an Invisible People

An estimated 1 to 3 million farmworkers in the U.S. work away from their home countries to sustain and support our food consumption and food exports. These migrant farmer workers are the invisible pillar upholding the American economy, working to plant, cultivate, harvest, and package crops in the U.S. According to the Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey taken in 2013-2014, these migrant farmworkers are predominantly male, Mexican-born or Hispanic, and of undocumented status.

Many are fathers and sons who left the comforts of home with the hopes of earning enough money to support their families and one day returning to their homelands. They exhibit an incredible commitment to their families and their trade, working long hours in harsh conditions for little pay and with few complaints. Despite the respectable traits of these migrant workers and the contributions they make to American society, they are some of the most underserved populations, their bodies continuously under extreme strain.

Farmworkers perform strenuous labor under exhausting conditions and are often exposed to a plethora of occupational hazards, all of which culminate in the poor health of this population. Workers are often required to bring in a minimum weight of crops by the end of the day or on an hourly basis, forcing them to take few or no breaks, even for meals or bathroom use.

The physically taxing nature of farm work and the required long hours without any days off can easily lead to joint pain, gastritis, and musculoskeletal disorders, not to mention the toll of constant fatigue on their mental health. In addition, non-infectious respiratory conditions, reproductive health issues such as premature births and developmental malformations, dermatitis, and eye and ear problems can also arise.

Lack of healthcare access inflicts further damage on the bodies of migrant farm workers. Survey data shows that the mean and median incomes from agricultural employment range from $15,000 to $17,499. Thirty percent of farmworkers have family incomes below the poverty line and a mere 35% have health insurance.

For many, not being able to afford doctor’s visits or medications is the harsh reality. Workers often do not receive time off to recover from injuries or illness, which prevents their bodies from healing properly. For the undocumented, fear of deportation is yet another barrier holding them back from proper medical care. In an interview, an undocumented Triqui Mexican worker who came from the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, expressed the very real threat of ICE raids and separation from their families. “We came here to have a better life,” he said, “but who knows if we’ll have that?”

Furthermore, the Western medical education system produces medical professionals that are not equipped to address the unique ways the bodies of migrant workers are impacted, as shown in research conducted by Dr. Seth Holmes, a UC Berkeley associate professor of medical anthropology. In his article “Oaxacans Like to Work Bent Over,” he outlines how physicians are trained to see the patient solely as an object, not understanding or addressing the human and societal context contributing to their suffering. Sickness is decontextualized, and it’s not perceived and treated in the world of inequalities that it was formed, but in the world of an individual, biological power. As a result, modern medical treatment leaves social determinants of health unaddressed and untreated.

Migrant farm workers are more than just an essential part of our economy and our lifestyle. They are human beings who have made immense sacrifices to come to the U.S. for a chance to provide for their families. They are human beings with human bodies that require the same care and protection as ours. As a country, and as a community, we must do better to ensure that they receive the care that they both need and deserve.