Farmworkers’ perceived discrimination affects work experience, injury treatment

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Discrimination and lack of worksite protections may impact immigrant farmworkers’ injury experiences, including their apprehension of reporting injuries because they fear being fired, according to a study led by researchers in the Department of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State.

These findings suggest a need for policies that better safeguard vulnerable workers, said lead author Shedra Amy Snipes, assistant professor of biobehavioral health.

Snipes and colleagues studied 89 Latino farmworkers in Texas over the course of five months.  They found — based both on their observations and on the perceptions of their subjects — that Latino farmworkers regularly felt discriminated against, most often at the hands of the farm owner. Workers also believed that being Latino put them at risk, because farm owners often asked Latino employees to work through their injuries, and without treatment.

“These contextual factors contribute to injury-related health disparities in the farmworker population,” Snipes said. “This work also has strong policy implications. We can use this work to see where policies fail to respond to injured workers and where it can be strengthened to better protect them.”

They published their results online in the Journal of Agromedicine in January.

A cohort of Latino workers who migrated from the Texas-Mexico border to the Panhandle region of Texas to work in cotton, squash, watermelon and citrus crops took part in the study. Data were collected using participant observation, interviews and surveys, from May to October 2009.

After five months of fieldwork, 89 open-ended, semi-structured interviews were analyzed.

The primary source of perceived discrimination was the supervisor or farm owner. A total of 67 of 89 farmworkers referenced some form of unfair treatment by their employer.

Immigrant status was also a significant influence on how farmworkers perceived the discrimination. Specifically, those whose English-language skills were weaker and who had more recently arrived in the U.S. reported stronger perceptions of discrimination, the researchers say.

Most importantly, farmworkers’ descriptions of discrimination were linked with their perceived health. In particular, some farmworkers detailed instances in which their employers required them to work through injuries, according to the researchers.

In addition to farm owners, farmworkers referenced discrimination from crew leaders or managers. Issues raised were concerns over unfair payment practices, being forced by their employer to work despite suffering from severe injuries that required treatment, and worries about unequal practices for the hiring and firing of employees who sought time off to care for illnesses.

However, not all farmworkers referenced experiences of unfair treatment at work, Snipes said. In fact, some even argued that there were no inequalities in their workplace. A small sample of farmworkers described equal pay and fair promotion practices as examples of how their employers treat employees equally.

Snipes said the findings of this study complement the works of many studies that explain the health burdens of Latino and immigrant farmworkers in the United States.

“Social conditions affect the lives and health of individuals. Farmworkers are no different. But the health of farmworkers is important to everyone because they provide our food. This is one reason it’s important to understand how they live and work.” Snipes said. 

Snipes added that this work brings to light the core of how discriminatory practices can impact farmworkers’ experiences of injuries, bolstering the limited number of studies on social vulnerability in working populations. There are also important implications for policy.

Understanding how farmworkers describe discrimination and how they are unable to access policy protections may also help advocates, policymakers and researchers know more about where to target their efforts to reduce discrimination in this population, Snipes said.

“These accounts of evidence may be especially relevant to policymakers by providing a lens to the intersection of lived experiences of discrimination and failed polices that leave injured workers without protection,” she said.

Advocates also can use this evidence to target agricultural employers to ensure fair hiring and firing practices, payment and time off due to injuries, Snipes said.

“Future research should study the concerns that farmworkers raised — unequal pay, hiring practices, working through serious injuries and firing practices — to understand the extent of each problem,” she said.

This research was supported by pilot funds from the Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention and Education of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Additional support was granted in part by an EXPORT Center of Excellence grant provided by the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, National Institutes of Health.

Other authors include Sharon Cooper, professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health; and Eva Shipp, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Texas A&M University.

Last Updated July 28, 2017