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Commentator John Oliver Publicizes Farmworkers’ Deaths and Illnesses on Last Week Tonight

by Gabrielle Stearns

Agriculture has always been tied to human health. Farmed plants and livestock are our main source of food and medicine. The products of agriculture keep us healthy. But the labor required to get the food to our grocery stores is harming the health of workers.

Recently, John Oliver’s main story on his comedy news show, Last Week Tonight, was about farmworkers, the conditions they work in, and how their health is sacrificed in order to put food on our tables.

The United States has a long history of excluding agriculture workers from labor laws and protections. For example, children are legally allowed to begin working in agriculture at 12 years old, or even younger in some cases with a parent’s permission. By contrast, most jobs require workers to be at least 14 years old. Many adults who work in agriculture are undocumented immigrants, meaning employers are not bound to follow labor laws in place to protect farmworkers. The result of these gaps in protections are catastrophic to the health of workers.

Oliver discussed several specific cases of death and illness directly resulting from farmwork, including a 12 year old suffering from heat stroke, workers regularly exposed to pesticides, and two men who drowned in manure on a dairy farm. These horrifying stories were often accompanied by interviews provided by news organizations, allowing some of the victims to share their own stories.

Oliver has a crass sense of humor coupled with deep empathy. The employers and policy makers responsible for the harm to farmworkers are the butt of his jokes while he uplifts the stories of victims. The comedy makes his reporting incredibly accessible and enjoyable, educating audiences who may not have been previously exposed to this issue. 

Watch the full episode on HBO or watch the farmworkers story for free on YouTube.