Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry

SPLC researchers interviewed approximately 150 women who are either currently undocumented or have spent time in the U.S. as undocumented immigrants. The women all have worked in the U.S. food industry in Arkansas, California, Florida, Iowa, New York or North Carolina. A few have now obtained legal status. The interviews took place from January through March of 2010. Researchers also interviewed a number of advocates who work with immigrant women and farmworkers.

The interviews were conducted almost exclusively in Spanish, and recordings were transcribed and translated into English. The women were first asked questions from a standard survey and then, based on their answers, asked by a researcher to elaborate on their experiences.

In most cases, the women quoted in this report are identified by their first name only, to protect their identities. In other cases, in which the subject did not want to be identified in any way, a fictional first name is used. Those names appear with an asterisk.

Authored by: Mary Bauer and Mónica Ramírez 

View our Teacher's Guide (PDF) published by Teaching Tolerance. 


Facts About Immigrant Women Working in the U.S. Food Industry

Undocumented women are among the most vulnerable workers in our society today. They fill the lowest paying jobs in our economy and provided the backbreaking labor that helps bring food to our tables. Yet they are routinely cheated out of wages and subjected to an array of other abuses in the workplace. They are generally powerless to enforce their rights or protect themselves. The following are facts from the SPLC report Injustice on Our Plates.

Undocumented Immigrants

  • There are an estimated 4.1 million undocumented women in the U.S. today. In addition, 4 million U.S.-born children — citizens by birthright — live in a household with at least one undocumented parent.1
  • Undocumented women typically earn minimum wage or less, get no sick or vacation days, and receive no health insurance.
  • Legalizing undocumented workers would raise the U.S. gross domestic product by $1.5 trillion over a decade. On the other hand, if the government were to deport all 10.8 million undocumented immigrants living on U.S. soil, our economy would decline by $2.6 trillion over a decade, not including the massive cost of such an endeavor.2
  • Each year, undocumented immigrants contribute as much as $1.5 billion to the Medicare system and $7 billion to the Social Security system, even though they will never be able to collect benefits upon retirement.3



  • There are an estimated 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers employed in the United States.4 The federal government estimates that 60 percent of farmworkers are undocumented immigrants; farmworker advocates say the percentage is far higher.
  • The National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) published by the Department of Labor reports that about 22% of the farmworker population is female. Thus, there are an estimated 630,000 women engaged in farm work in the United States.5
  • The average personal income of female crop workers is $11,250, compared to $16,250 for male crop workers.6
  • A mere 8 percent of farmworkers report being covered by employer-provided health insurance, a rate that dropped to 5 percent for farmworkers who are employed seasonally and not year-round.7
  • According to the U.S. Department of Labor, farmworkers suffer from higher rates of toxic chemical injuries and skin disorders than any other workers in the country.8 The children of migrant farmworkers, also, have higher rates of pesticide exposure than the general public.9
  • Each year, there are an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 cases of physician-diagnosed pesticide poisoning among U.S. farmworkers, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.10
  • Farmworkers are not covered by workers’ compensation laws in many states. They are not entitled to overtime pay under federal law. On smaller farms and in short harvest seasons, they are not entitled to the federal minimum wage.11 They are excluded from many state health and safety laws.12
  • Because of special exemptions for agriculture, children as young as 10 may work in the fields. Also, many states exempt farmworker children from compulsory education laws.

Poultry Workers

  • Almost a quarter of the workers who butcher and process meat, poultry and fish are undocumented.13
  •  At least half of the 250,00014 laborers in 174 of the major U.S. chicken factories are Latino and more than half are women.15
  •  Working in a chicken factory is one of the most dangerous occupations in America. Line workers endure a frigid and wet work environment, without adequate bathroom breaks, while being exposed to numerous hazards handling chicken on hangers that whiz by a rate of hundreds per minute. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not enacted any regulation to limit the speed at which poultry and meat processing lines operate — despite the appallingly high rates of injury directly attributable to the line speed. In the decade ending in 2008, 100 poultry workers died in the U.S., and 300,000 were injured, many suffering the loss of a limb or debilitating repetitive motion injuries.16
  •  The U.S. Department of Labor surveyed 51 poultry processing plants and found 100% had violated labor laws by not paying employees for all hours worked. Also, one-third took impermissible deductions from workers’ pay.17


Sexual Abuse On the Job

  • In a recent study of 150 women of Mexican descent working in the fields in California’s Central Valley, 80% said they had experienced sexual harassment.18 That compares to roughly half of all women in the U.S. workforce who say they have experienced at least one incident.
  • While investigating the sexual harassment of California farmworker women in the mid-1990s, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that “hundreds, if not thousands, of women had to have sex with supervisors to get or keep jobs and/or put up with a constant barrage of grabbing and touching and propositions for sex by supervisors.”19
  •  A 1989 article in Florida indicates that sexual harassment against farmworker women was so pervasive that women referred to the fields as the “green motel.”20 Similarly, the EEOC reports that women in California refer to the fields as “fil de calzon,” or the fields of panties, because sexual harassment is so widespread.21
  •  Due to the many obstacles that confront farmworker women — including fear, shame, lack of information about their rights, lack of available resources to help them, poverty, cultural and/or social pressures, language access and, for some, their status as undocumented immigrants — few farmworker women ever come forward to seek justice for the sexual harassment and assault that they have suffered.22
  •  In interviews for this report, virtually all women reported that sexual violence in the workplace is a serious problem.


1 Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States,” Pew Hispanic Center, April 14, 2009.

2 Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, “Raising the Floor for American Workers,” Center for American Progress and Immigration Policy Center, American Immigration Council, January 2010.

3 Eduardo Porter, “Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security with Billions,” The New York Times, April 5, 2005.

4 National Center for Farmworker Health, “Facts About Farmworkers,” Found at http://www.ncfh.org/docs/fs-Facts%20about%20Farmworkers.pdf. Last visited Nov. 12, 2010.

5 U.S. Department of Labor, “National Agricultural Worker Survey,” Published March 2005, Found at http://www.doleta.gov/agworker/report9/naws_rpt9.pdf, 9. Last visited March 15, 2007.

6 Analysis of public access data from the National Agricultural Workers Survey for FY 2004-2006, Office of Policy Development and Research, Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor.

7 National Center for Farmworker Health, Inc., “Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Demographics,” 2009, at 3.

8 The National Agricultural Workers Survey, United States Department of Labor, 2005. www.doleta.gov/agworker/naws.cfm.

9 Maternal & Child Health Fact Sheet, National Center for Farm Worker Health, 2009, www.ncfh.org/docs/fs-MATERNAL%20FACT%20SHEET.pdf.

10 J. Routt Reigart and James R. Roberts, “Recognition and Management of Pesticide Poisonings,” Office of Pesticide Programs, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Fifth Edition, 1999.

11 Also, in most Southern states, either there is no state minimum wage or farmworkers are expressly excluded from coverage.

12 See, e.g., Ala. Code § 25-1-1; Ark. Code Ann. § 11-2-101; O.C.G.A. (Georgia) §§ 34-2-2, 34-2-10; La. R.S. § 23.13.

13 Jeffrey S. Passel, “Unauthorized Migrants: Numbers and Characteristics,” Pew Hispanic Center, June 14, 2005, and Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn “A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States,” Pew Hispanic Center, April 14, 2009.

14 William G. Whittaker, “Labor Practices in the Meat Packing and Poultry Processing Industry: An Overview,” Congressional Research Service, July 20, 2005, www.nationalaglawcenter.org/assets/crs/RL33002.pdf, accessed October 5, 2010, citing Industrial Safety & Hygiene News, July 2002, 14.

15 “Injury and Injustice — America’s Poultry Industry,” United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, www.ufcw.org/press_room/fact_sheets_and_ backgrounder/ poultryindustry_.cfm, accessed October 5, 2010.

16 “Hazards and Disorders of Poultry Processing, U.S. Occupational and Safety Health Administration presentation,” www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/powerpoint/chicken/index.html.

17 “U.S. Department of Labor Poultry Processing Compliance Survey Fact Sheet,” U.S. Department of Labor, January 2001, http://www.ufcw.org/docUploads/ Usdept~1.pdf?CFID=5119829&CFTOKEN=98920065.

18 Irma Morales Waugh, “Examining the Sexual Harassment Experiences of Mexican Immigrant Farmworking Women,” Violence Against Women, January 2010, 11.

19 Maria Ontiveros. “Lessons From the Fields: Female Farmworkers and the Law,” 55 ME. L. Rev. 157, 169. (2003).

20 Margo Harakas. “Tales of the Green Motel.” The Sun-Sentinel, February 12, 1989.

21 Rebecca Clarren. “The Green Motel,” Ms., Summer 2005, at 42; See also Ontiveros at 169.

22 Mónica Ramírez and Mike Meuter. The Holistic Representation Model: A Best Practices Manual for Representing Farmworker Women Who Have Been Sexually Harassed, Southern Poverty Law Center, 2nd Edition Published November 2008.