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John Oliver calls for better labor conditions for farmworkers

HBO series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.Lloyd Bishop/HBO

On Sunday’s episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” Oliver focused on farming in the United States, describing the harrowing conditions often faced by foreign-born agricultural workers and highlighting programs that seek to mitigate labor concerns.

Click the video embeds below to watch some of the highlights from last night’s show.

Despite the stereotype of who farms for a living, Oliver pointed out that the majority of crop workers are foreign-born and many are undocumented. He referred to a program in Washington that failed to attract American workers.

While he said farmworkers were deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, Oliver described how poorly they’re regarded by their employers. He outlined dangerous conditions they face such as pesticide exposure, and provided a quick history lesson on American labor law in the 1930s failing to protect agricultural workers, setting the stage for today’s problems.


Oliver explored the topic of children working on American farms. According to the show, children can work in agriculture as young as 12, or younger with written parental consent.

Among treacherous conditions, farmworkers may face abuse from employers. Oliver highlighted one particular case. He went on to mention the lenient penalties faced by farms if found liable, and explained that vulnerable workers may feel uncomfortable coming forward. Some workers may be contractors, he said, experiencing challenges such as having their passports confiscated.

Oliver delved into the problems created by the H-2A visa program. While it ostensibly protects farmworkers against deportation, employers may not fulfill their duties, he said, such as providing adequate housing. He put the spotlight on a case in Georgia that was described as “modern-day slavery.”

Oliver talked about Florida’s Fair Food program, which has restaurants and retailers sign on to provide tomato cropworkers more money. The participants work with farms that operate with a human rights-based code of conduct, Oliver said.