Immigrant Workers Supplying our Food Chain Face Climate Threats, Unmet Needs

By Juan Gomez, Christian Collins, and J Geiman

CLASP recognizes the important ways in which climate change impacts the people and policies we advocate for. This blog is the sixth in a series exploring the intersection of environmental justice and economic security for people living with low incomes. Explore the series here.

Immigrant workers have been overrepresented among our essential workers, and particularly those who keep our nation fed. More than 50 percent of meat packing workers and 75 percent of farmworkers are immigrants. Yet, despite being essential, they continuously are subjected to fewer worker protections and unsafe working environments, which are only worsening with our warming climate. These threats call for new federal policies and investments to protect all workers across the food supply industry, support immigration rights, and transform our agricultural system. 

Extreme heat environments are known to place physical risk on workers by increasing workplace injuries. These environments also lead to greater risk of developing health conditions such as asthma, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Heat-related illnesses are the leading cause of death for farmworkers, who are 20 percent more likely to die from them than are other workers. The continued record-breaking heat has also contributed to an increase in natural disasters, such as wildfires, during which farmworkers are expected to continue to work despite the increased risk of harm and exposure to wildfire smoke. 

Rising temperatures also create economic risks for weather-exposed workers. County-level wages drop across all industries, but workers in highly exposed industries experience the greatest drop. As noted by the Environmental Protection Agency, workers in weather-exposed industries tend to have lower incomes and thus are more reliant on their incomes to meet basic needs. For them, the climate crisis is simultaneously an economic crisis. About 30 percent of farmworkers and over 12 percent of meat packing workers live below the poverty line.

Additionally, immigrant workers face systemic barriers to addressing the harms of those environmental inequities. Workers whose homes may have been impacted by wildfires or flooding may be ineligible for economic or housing assistance due to their immigration status. Immigrants who develop health conditions from exposure to toxic chemicals at work are often not eligible for health care coverage

The COVID-19 pandemic helped bring attention to the poor working conditions in America’s food supply sectors. However, exploitation has long been the norm in these industries, and immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable to labor abuses. Both the meatpacking and farming industries aggressively recruit undocumented workers precisely because their status can be used against them. Companies pay them lower wages, provide fewer benefits, and cut costs through subpar working conditions. Immigration raids have been used by employers to retaliate against employees that strike or unionize, further discouraging undocumented workers from advocating for their rights.

Furthermore, farmworkers are excluded from many federal labor standards that protect the rights of workers in other sectors, including collective bargaining rights. Although farm work is subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and other limited federal policies, employers frequently violate these standards with no repercussions. Even within FLSA standards, farm work is exempt from certain rules, including those concerning child labor. This means child farmworkers have no hour limits and are subject to hazardous conditions such as exposure to pesticides, which can compromise child development.

This lack of legal protections means that immigrant food supply workers are particularly vulnerable to worsening labor conditions as a result of climate change. With minimal action from the U.S. Department of Labor to enforce workers’ rights, and no protection for workers’ self-advocacy, employers will only continue to disregard immigrant workers’ rights and safety.  

These complex issues require comprehensive solutions from the White House and Congress. Food supply workers must be granted full legal rights, including the right to organize and protection from retaliation; benefits and livable wages; and safe working conditions including shade, water, ventilation, and rest periods. The Colorado Farmworkers Bill of Rights provides a strong model for a potential national policy.  

Additionally, the Biden Administration should communicate with workers in these industries to ensure they know their rights. The administration committed to ending workplace immigration raids. However, officials must build trust with immigrant communities to ensure workers know about these changes and feel safe to organize or report dangerous workplace conditions without fear of deportation.  

In tandem with increased labor protections for food supply workers, Congress must implement a pathway to citizenship so the disproportionate numbers of undocumented and temporary workers employed in these fields are covered by these policies. No worker in any industry should be subject to labor abuses. It is particularly egregious that the essential workers who feed our nation are often most at risk. 

On a broader scale, we must address the urgent climate crisis and the unsustainability of our food supply industries. Agriculture accounts for more than a third of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Modern farming and livestock practices can cause erosion, waterway pollution, and other harms on local ecosystems. The administration and Congress should make it a priority to invest in transformative agricultural practices through the upcoming Farm Bill and other legislation. Funding can be used to support research; incentivize farmers to implement sustainable practices like using cover crops, rotational grazing, and integrated pest management to improve soil health and carbon sequestration; and provide stricter regulation of companies’ environmental impact. Through a comprehensive approach, we can put an end to the harm our food systems are causing to the immigrant workers these industries depend on and to our global climate.