Living Labor in the Fields: Rethinking Farmworker Labor and Living Conditions

Authors: Caroline Keegan*, University of Georgia
Topics: Social Theory, Economic Geography, Planning Geography
Keywords: farmworker, labor, social reproduction, poverty, precarity, fix, planning
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Madison B, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In just the month of December 2017, news items detailed the prevalence of farmworkers laboring in California’s fields without masks during massive wildfires (KQED), a teen’s development of an app to track heat stroke risk for individuals in the fields (The Fresno Bee), and an announcement of a farmworker housing shelter to be built in the Coachella Valley through private and religious contributions (KESQ). In these news items, the solutions discussed included the distribution of face masks for smoke inhalation by a local nonprofit, technological innovation that allows workers to endure heat up to the point of illness, and acts of charity. In this way, health issues and homelessness among farmworkers are framed as individual problems rather than systemic economic problems. In this paper, I take up the concept of social reproduction to expose the farm labor system as neither natural nor inevitable in order to rethink the responsibilities of employers to the farmworkers they employ and the “naturalness” of poverty and precarity that farmworkers face. Farmworkers’ struggles for social reproduction have long been seen as unfortunately incidental to the agricultural labor process -- to be “fixed” through publicly funded labor camps or philanthropic food assistance -- rather than as an integral part of a violent industry (Walker 2004, Minkoff-Zern 2014, Mitchell 1996). In reconsidering the living and labor conditions for US farmworkers, this work poses a fundamental shift in the logic of disposability in the agricultural labor system and moves away from the “fix” to consider broad socioeconomic possibilities.

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