Michigan Farmworker Project seeks to improve social and environmental health for marginalized population

An image of an apple orchard.

Q&A with Alexis Handal and Lisbeth Iglesias-Rios

Led by University of Michigan School of Public Health social epidemiologists Alexis Handal and Lisbeth Iglesias-Rios, the Michigan Farmworker Project (MFP) is a community-based participatory research initiative aimed at improving the social and environmental health of Michigan’s farmworker population, who play a critical role in the state’s food supply chain.

In May 2020, the researchers shared first-of-its-kind findings that provided evidence-based approaches to better protecting Michigan’s farmworkers from COVID-19 while providing essential work during the pandemic. We spoke with Handal, associate professor of Epidemiology, and Iglesias-Rios, a postdoctoral fellow at Michigan Public Health, to learn more about the research initiative.

How would you describe the work of the Michigan Farmworker Project?

The project evolved organically as a community-based participatory research initiative intended to provide a deeper understanding of the complex working and living conditions of migrant, seasonal and H-2A visa farmworkers in the state of Michigan. Specifically, we are interested in the role that precarious employment and labor exploitation have on the health of farmworkers and their families and communities, including the assessment of occupational and environmental health exposures, psychosocial and organizational work-related factors—within the context of structural societal factors, such as immigration policies, racism, etc.

Our partnership involves an ethnically and racially diverse group of individuals who contribute a diverse set of skills, resources, and knowledge—all with the common vision to address health inequities faced by the farmworker population and address gaps in services and potential areas of improvement. Our overarching goal is to inform programmatic and policy change to protect and promote the health and well-being of the farmworker community. Since the project’s inception in 2019, we have collaborated with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, Farmworker Legal Services, and the Office of Migrant Affairs and Migrant Resource Councils.

What kind of research does MFP conduct?

The first MFP study was conducted in 2019 as a qualitative study to gain a deeper understanding of the farmworker community in Michigan. The study involved interviews with 35 female and male farmworkers and 21 stakeholders from different sectors (health, legal, outreach, and educational services) who were currently providing services to farmworkers or were previously involved in the provision of services to this population in various rural areas of Michigan. Through in-depth in-person interviews, we aimed to understand the working and living conditions of farmworkers in the state, as well as the gaps in service provision and potential areas of improvement in services and program and policy development. We also collected information on recommendations made from farmworkers and stakeholders to address their needs and improve services, regulations, and policies.

Building on the 2019 study, in 2020-2021 we conducted a mixed methods study commissioned by, and in partnership with, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights assessing how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted fair housing access and quality, and other important social and occupational exposures. We conducted a telephone survey with 83 farmworkers to better understand their housing situation and the complex interplay between housing, employment, and health in this population of workers. Our goal was to assess potential multi-level barriers to fair housing access (e.g., employment conditions, fear of deportation, lack of childcare access, families with children, job insecurity) and employment for farmworkers in the state, and the impact of the pandemic on housing access. We are currently working on developing a report with these findings.

What started your interest in working with the farmworker community to conduct research?

A farmworker harvests apples during the 2021 season. Photo taken by a MFP farmworker participant. Historically, farmworkers who are primarily US- and foreign-born Hispanic/Latina(o) workers have been a highly marginalized and vulnerable population, exposed to precarious working conditions and difficult challenges such as limited social, economic, and legal resources, lack of social and economic mobility, lack of access to quality education and low educational attainment, poverty, lack of access to health care, and so forth. These essential workers are the pillar of the multibillion-dollar US agriculture and food system and are critical contributors to the agricultural industry, despite facing an array of challenges.

From the lens of health equity and social justice, the social and economic disadvantage of farmworkers today is part of the inherited legacy of structural racism and racist policies. Since the era of plantations and subsequent Jim Crow, the exclusion of farmworkers from social and labor protections (e.g., minimum wage, worker compensation, overtime pay provisions) conferred to other working groups, driving an intergenerational cycle of disadvantage and vulnerability among farmworkers and their families.These workers continue to face longstanding patterns of structural racism and discrimination, social exclusion, segregation, substandard living conditions, as well as oppressive and unfair working conditions.

We focus on farmworkers because the work of this workforce is inherently precarious and often exploitative. It promotes unsafe and sometimes unfair or unlawful labor practices by employers, performed sometimes in conditions of inequality, or in violation of human dignity. Labor exploitation is a consequence of precarious employment and has negative consequences for workers, their families and their communities, and is a hindrance for a cohesive society.

A cohesive society works toward the well-being of all its members, fights discrimination and racism, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust, and offers all its members regardless of their race, sex, age, and legal status the opportunity of upward social and economic mobility. From a public health perspective, there is good evidence that more cohesive societies are healthier. Fair employment and decent working conditions can provide financial security, social relations, personal development, and many other health-promoting attributes considered by the World Health Organization as important social determinants of health and important dimensions of a healthy and cohesive society.

What unique considerations need to be made for migrant and seasonal farmworkers from a public health perspective?

There are a myriad of areas of concern that are important to think about for this population—several of which we have highlighted in the past and continue to be significant, as well as other issues that have emerged through our ongoing work. Many of the areas of concern are intrinsically connected with the working and living conditions of farmworkers; thus, addressing employment precarity is key to addressing many of these factors:

  • Food security: Food insecurity is often closely tied with economic and job security, and is an important issue we uncovered in our most recent study. In that study, over a quarter of farmworkers were classified as having low or very low food security (27%)—more than double the level of food insecurity in US households (10.5%) in 2020.
  • Childcare and educational services: Since the start of the pandemic, access to childcare services has emerged as an important challenge for working families and working mothers. At the pandemic’s height, the major provider for childcare services in the state for agricultural workers, Migrant Head Start, had to stop in-person services, leaving families with few childcare options. Some workers shared that they had to stop working due to lack of childcare. This is a critical issue affecting economic security, housing and food security, particularly for single mothers and working families. Even now, the Migrant Head Start program in Michigan is facing challenges due to limited staffing. Supporting the care and education of children of farmworkers is essential to break the intergenerational cycle of disadvantage in this population and to improve the health, well-being, and social circumstances of current and future generations of farmworkers.
  • Health care services: Farmworkers have limited or no access to health care, interrupted care due to geographical mobility or inability to pay for health care services. Often workers are not able to purchase or afford necessary medications, like insulin. In this population, chronic diseases often linked to the working and living conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, asthma, and cardiovascular problems, are prevalent. These diseases are particularly important risk factors for severe illness, including COVID-19. Mental health is also overlooked in this population even though farmworkers have physically and mentally demanding jobs and often little or no social support, lacking strong social networks in the communities where they work.
  • Living conditions: Housing accessibility, affordability and quality for farmworkers and their families continues to be a challenge. The minimal legal provisions for housing are insufficient and housing options outside of agricultural working sites in Michigan are often unaffordable. Workers also face housing access obstacles related to lack of documentation needed to rent a house, such as social security documentation, or to job insecurity due to the nature of their work.
  • Working conditions: Our 2019 study highlighted that precarious employment and labor exploitation shape the social and working environment for farmworkers; specifically, the lack of access to fundamental labor and social rights and dehumanizing treatment, inadequate and discriminatory working practices and payments, and insufficient access to health care and social benefits.
  • Employer dynamics: Farmworkers have described and discussed the complex power dynamics and the dependency of workers with employers, crew leaders and contractors. These dynamics often promote the inability of workers to make complaints about their health, safety or working conditions as they are afraid of reprisals. These power dynamics also impact housing decisions, as housing access and quality is intrinsically connected with employment in this population. We continue to see this as an important challenge that affects farmworkers at work and in their ability to access affordable and adequate housing.

What would you like people to take away from the Michigan Farmworker Project’s work?

The challenges that farmworkers face are longstanding, and there is still so much work that needs to be done to improve the health of this community. Farmworkers have high dependency on employers, crew leaders and contractors, and have low decision-making power or control over their working and the living conditions offered to them. This lack of autonomy increases the vulnerability of farmworkers in terms of precarious employment, labor exploitation, and other types of unfair or health harming situations for these workers, their families, and their communities.

This is the first community-based participatory research initiative that we are aware of that has collected primary data on occupational and environmental risk factors related to the working and living conditions in this population of agricultural workers in Michigan. It is our goal that the knowledge gained from the MFP initiative will help inform programmatic and policy efforts that address the needs and gaps in services and improve the working and living conditions of farmworkers in Michigan and beyond. We hope to spark important conversations and inform actions that will address the working and living conditions of these essential farmworkers now and in the future.

Ultimately, we intend to continue expanding upon the MFP and exploring novel approaches to influence stakeholders and policymakers so that the life and working experiences of farmworkers are understood as a matter of human rights and social justice for them as workers and for us as community and society.

Image caption: A farmworker harvests apples during the 2021 season. Photo taken by a MFP farmworker participant.