Migrant Farmworkers: Social Work Interventions for Social and Environmental Justice by Melissa Fisher

Migrant laborers, specifically of Hispanic and Latino origin, are a large portion of the agricultural workforce in the United States1,2,3. In Western Colorado, we see migrant farmworkers, generally from Mexico, come to Palisade for the peach, apple and grape harvests. Sometimes these workers are here with work permits and other times they’re undocumented.

From a social justice perspective, Mexican migrants are a marginalized group; they are coming into the US as a minority in a low socioeconomic bracket, often with concerns about legal immigration status1,2,3. For migrant farmworkers, pesticide exposure is an additional concern1,2,3.  Pesticides have long been known to have negative health risks for humans including birth defects, neurological disorders, endocrine disorders, and cancer1,3. Because of the health risks, it is concerning that migrant farm workers are disproportionately poisoned by pesticides during their work1,3. Part of environmental justice in terms of social work means recognizing how people of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental issues such as exposure to toxins3. In solving this problem, several social work interventions are presented by the research.

At a micro level, migrant farm workers need culturally competent education around the effects of risks of exposure to pesticides3. Education also needs to be provided about how to ensure the pesticides the worker is exposed to aren’t being passed to their family and children; one study noted that after taking a shower the pesticides can potentially remain in the bathtub and be passed on to children, who are far more vulnerable to the effects3.


Writing on the bathroom door of a Palisade vineyard in both English and Spanish.

At the mezzo level, it is beneficial to take a community-based approach and have stakeholders, especially farmworkers, at the table for research and policy discussions1. Several approaches specific to farmworkers include accessing them through an established organization, such as the Hispanic Affairs Project in Western Colorado, as an organization already knows how to contact the migrants and has earned their trust1. Additionally, the research notes migrant farm workers are more vulnerable during natural disasters for a host of reasons2. Because of their their living conditions, which are often unsafe to begin with, as well as lack of information in their native language about disaster preparedness, migrant workers and their families are at high risk for tragedy during natural diasters2. Perhaps through the same established organizations, social workers can ensure information about disaster preparedness is circulated to migrant farmworkers. Disaster preparedness is especially important when considering how climate change is contributing to more frequent and severe weather patterns.

When looking at interventions on the macro level, the solution is intuitive: using less pesticides in agriculture production would mean there is less risk to migrant workers for being exposed. Social workers can use their voice as a collective group to advocate for more environmentally friendly farming practices, as well as a cultural shift where the way food is produced is equally as important as the amount that’s produced. Environmental justice in agriculture will lead to less environmental racism and better lives for migrant farmworkers.


1 – Arcury, T., Quandt, S., & McCauley, L. (2000). Farmworkers and pesticides: Community-based research. Environmental Health Perspectives, 108(8), 787-792. doi:10.2307/3434734


2 – Montz, B., Allen, T., & Monitz, G. (2011). Systemic trends in disaster vulnerability: Migrant and seasonal farm workers in North Carolina. Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy, 2(1), 82-98.


3 – Pfeifer, G. (2016). Pesticides, migrant farm workers, and corporate agriculture: How social work can promote environmental justice. Journal of Progressive Human Services, 27(3), 175-190





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