California is one of the largest and most productive farming regions in the world. The state is the leading producer of agricultural goods in the United States; roughly 1/3 of the nation’s vegetables and 1/2 of the nation’s fruits and nuts are grown in California. We owe much of the nutritious food we eat to the hard work of California farmers. Despite the essential nature of their work, farmers in California face particularly difficult, and at times unlawful, labor conditions. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, farm-work is one of the most physically hazardous professions. Heavy machinery and manual labor can cause farming accidents, leading to injury, disability, and death. Exposure to hazardous chemicals, pesticides, and extreme weather conditions put farmworkers at risk of developing long-term illness and injury. Climate change is exposing farmworkers to increasingly dangerous work conditions.

In addition to the physical hazards that farmworkers face, California farmworkers are disproportionately vulnerable to exploitation, wage theft, and other labor law violations. Seventy five percent of California farmworkers are working without legal documentation. Eighty nine percent of farmworkers in California reported Spanish as their primary language, while only 16% reported being able to speak English “well.” Roughly 21% of farmworkers hold a high school diploma or equivalent, and only around 1% hold a college degree. Fears of retaliation or deportation, combined with educational and language barriers, dissuade low-wage farmworkers from advocating for the safe and fair workplace conditions they are legally entitled to. 

California Labor Law and the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) are responsible for maintaining fair and safe labor conditions for farmworkers in California. The laws set safety standards for farms, in addition to regulating minimum wage and hour practices. Employers are legally required to provide safe workplace conditions and fair compensation to all people they employ. California laws shield farmers working without documents from being punished or retaliated against for bringing legal claims against their employers. Despite these legal protections, farmers in California still find themselves subject to unlawful labor conditions at times, and employers are able to avoid accountability in some of these cases. 

In early February 2024, farmworkers and their advocates testified to such unlawful safety and wage violations before the California Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment. Their testimony also evidenced Cal/OSHA’s failure to respond to complaints lodged by farmworkers appropriately and promptly. After hearing the testimony, assembly member Liz Ortega called the subpar workplace safety on some California farms “dangerous and illegal.” Assembly member Joaquin Arambula noted the legal violations, stating “the laws in the fields are not the laws that we are passing here at our statewide level.” Assembly members suggested that they might pursue an audit of Cal/OSHA. 

In response, Cal/OSHA representatives told the California Assembly Committee that they are forming an agricultural enforcement unit, and that they intend to recruit more Cal/OSHA employees to focus on farmworkers rights. Cal/OSHA reported that they will be establishing anonymous hotlines for farmworkers who need to report labor violations. 

Farmworkers are providing essential labor in the United States. Regardless of citizenship, ethnicity, education, or language, they are entitled to be able to work safely under the law, and be paid for the important work that they perform. Hopefully, increased attention from Cal/OSHA, and continued advocacy by farmworkers and their representatives, will continue to increase the rights and protections of farmworkers in California. 

If you have experienced unsafe labor conditions or unlawful wage and hour exploitation, reach out to an employment attorney to take legal action. Navruz Avloni is an experienced employment lawyer dedicated to fighting for employee rights against workplace abuses. If you have are looking for a lawyer, reach out to Navruz Avloni for a free and confidential consultation.