Farm labor results in unique challenges to the health of farmworkers and their families. Farmworkers may face poor dental health, diabetes, hypertension and mental health issues.11 Agriculture is one of the most accident-prone industries in the United States, and workers in the industry face the highest fatality rate in the nation.12 Occupational challenges faced by farmworkers include pesticide exposure, infectious diseases, respiratory issues, hearing and vision problems and musculoskeletal conditions.13 Poor living conditions such as overcrowded or poorly maintained housing and lack of clean drinking water can have negative health impacts.
Many farmworkers do not have access to regular, affordable health care, often lacking coverage through their employers or public programs, and they do not earn enough money to pay for health insurance. Only 56% of farmworkers report having health insurance.5 Over half of the farmworkers surveyed in the National Agricultural Workers Survey cited cost as the major difficulty to accessing health care.5 In addition, farmworkers typically cannot afford to take time off from work or to risk losing their jobs to seek medical care. Transportation challenges, language and cultural differences and limited clinic hours also create barriers. Follow-up and continuity of care present additional challenges as many farmworkers relocate several times each year and do not maintain permanent addresses or phone numbers.
Female farmworkers face the additional risks of sexual harassment and sexual violence. While the national prevalence of sexual harassment and/or violence experienced by farmworkers is unknown, some studies suggest up to 80% of farmworkers may be experiencing this issue. Often, the problem of sexual harassment is left unaddressed due to fear of deportation or job loss, embarrassment or shame, and barriers like language and available resources.14,15
Child and Adolescent Farmworkers
Child and adolescent farmworkers are especially at risk for adverse health effects and consequences of agricultural work. Many children working as farmworkers suffer more frequent respiratory, parasitic, and skin infections, diarrhea, nutritional deficiencies and oral health issues.2 Children who are still developing are particularly vulnerable to these hazards.2
Education of Farmworker Children
Migration and agricultural work often interrupt formal schooling. Moving regularly can make it difficult for farmworker children to complete their education. The median highest grade of schooling obtained by foreign farmworkers is at the eighth-grade level.5 Children and young adults often work to contribute to the family income. They may miss part of the school year, attend multiple schools each year, face discrimination or have little time for their studies or any extracurricular activities. Educators estimate that only 45% to 60% of children in migrant households nationwide graduate from high school.9
In addition, students from farmworker families may struggle with language differences or be met with low expectations from educators. Through funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Migrant Education and Head Start programs through local school districts provide children of migrating families with supplemental education and development programs designed to help close the educational gap. Despite the added challenges of interrupted education and migrant life, farmworker children have plans and aspirations that include pursuing higher education.
Strengths of the Farmworker
Farmworkers are extremely resilient. They endure and often overcome the difficulties of hard labor, poverty, discrimination, interrupted schooling, health problems, and fragmented health care. Dedication to family and community provides a strong support system for farmworkers. They take pride in who they are and their indispensable role in providing food for the nation, and work hard to provide a bright future for themselves and their families.
Many farmworkers work with local, regional and national organizations to improve conditions and health for all farmworkers and their families. Farmworkers have helped develop and sustain successful Community Health Worker (CHW) programs, or Promotor(a) programs, in their camps and communities. A Community Health Worker is a trusted member of the community who empowers their peers through education and connections to health and social resources.
CHWs in these programs build on community strengths; farmworkers teach each other and address the unmet health needs of their friends and neighbors through education, referrals, peer support, advocacy and networking with service providers. This is at the heart of MHP Salud’s mission, as migrant farmworkers were some of the first communities to adopt Promotor(a) programs created by MHP Salud. Learn more about our history here.