by Melinda Wiggins
When we consider migrant farmworkers, we usually imagine them to be men. The thought of women as a significant part of this population is probably an afterthought at best, and even then most of us would greatly underestimate their numbers. Of the estimated 2.5 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the U.S. today, more that 1/4 of them are women (U.S. Dept. of Labor. Migrant Farmworkers: Pursuing Security in an Unstable Labor Market, Research Report #5. May 1994). Therefore, it is important for us to recognize the role of women in farmwork. The term 'migrant farmworker' is a broad one; it describes people who migrate to perform various agricultural jobs and includes people belonging to various ethnic, gender, and age groups.
Once we are aware of the large number of women doing this kind of work, we must explore the differences that exist between the lives of migrant farmworker men and women. Migrant farmwork is not an easy job, regardless of whether one is male or female. Farmworker advocates have witnessed deplorable conditions and low pay for some time. However, as is the case in most jobs, women are often subject to much more difficult experiences.
Though women do nearly every kind of farm labor on every kind of farm, they routinely earn less than men for doing the same work. Often women are further confined by being assigned lower-paying tasks, resulting in incomes which are 2/3 less than those of their male counterparts (The California Commission on the Status of Women: Campesinas: Women Farmworkers in the California Agricultural Labor Force, 1978). There is also a discrepancy in the amount of benefits extended to farmworker women as compared to men. 24% of farmworker men have receive paid sick leave and 49% have health insurance, while only 11% and 35% of farmworker women (respectively) have the same benefits (Ibid). In spite of these discrepancies in pay and benefits, the desire for work and the threat of unemployment forces most farmworker women to accept any job they can obtain. Migrant farmworker women are 2.5 times more likely to be unemployed than men (Ibid). Even those women who find employment don't receive continuous pay because there is no full-time work. The average annual period of employment of a farmworker woman is 4.9 months (The Committee on Women in Agriculture. A Study of Agricultural Workers in Ventura County, California, 1993).
On the job, both men and women face the occupational hazards of pesticide exposure, long hours of fast-paced repetitive tasks without breaks, and a lack of toilets and drinking water in the fields (Farmworker Women Speak Out, Farmworker Justice Fund, Inc., Washington D.C., 1994). When not in the fields, migrant farmworkers are most often housed in substandard labor camps. They are often isolated, living in remote rural areas. Women often find themselves dependent on their husbands and crew leaders for transportation and many experience sexual harassment and violence. In 1995, 1/3 of farmworker women reported that they had experienced domestic violence over the course of the previous year (Evaluation of the Migrant Clinicians Network, April 1995).
Though there are some facts and figures, few studies have been conducted on the lives of farmworker women. By grouping all "migrant farmworkers" together as if they were one homogeneous group of people, there have not been extensive efforts to increase awareness about the circumstances that farmworker women often face. And though these statistics present a sobering image of oppression, this image is nameless, faceless.
Statistics cannot present us with the lives of real farmworker women like Marta who has to carry her four children to the field with her as she labors over the tobacco plants in the eastern North Carolina. Or Victoria who, as director of the North Carolina Farmworkers' Project, protested against discrimination at the NC Department of Motor Vehicles. Or Maria Elena who is not only a farmworker but an organizer of farmworker women. Before a just and empowering political and economic system can be established, the voices of farmworker women must be heard. Maria Elena eloquently documents the life of farmworker women in her book Forged Under the Sun. To listen and respond is the challenge. Forged Under the Sun/Forjada bajo el sol: The Life of Maria Elena Lucas, Maria Elena Lucas, Fran Leeper Buss, ed., 1993.
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