In comparison to the environmental, ethical, and health effects of our food system, the welfare of farm workers had seemed, to me, a background issue. Partly, it was because there is so much overlap in the problems of environmental impact, sustainability, and animal welfare – the food system becomes a vast and compelling problem almost regardless of which issue you care about. In addition, there are straightforward ways of being part of the solution – change where you eat and what you buy. Alternative farming systems can solve all of these problems at once, and they are gaining momentum. I also naively thought that, while conditions for farm workers might not be as good as they could be, they were perhaps good enough for now while we work to improve other aspects of the food system. As demand for more ethical food increases and becomes more economically viable, advancing farm worker rights would be a natural next step.
Perhaps that is true. However, when Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) and several members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) came to speak at Edible Education 101, I learned that farm workers are far worse off than I ever imagined and that there is no such thing as ethical food if it comes out of a system that exploits people at every turn.
The town of Immokalee, Florida basically exists for one reason: to grow tomatoes. It’s not an ideal spot for growing tomatoes, and yet, almost every big chain grocery store or fast food restaurant gets their tomatoes from Immokalee. As I learned from Eric and the CIW representatives, farm workers in America are not protected by the same labor laws that apply to other employed people. Many farm workers, such as the tomato pickers in Immokalee, are not paid the minimum hourly wage as set by the federal government. Instead, they are paid corresponding to how much they pick. Technically, the price paid is supposed to be high enough that a farm worker could make at least minimum wage.
According to the CIW website, Immokalee tomato pickers make only 50 cents for every 32 pounds of tomatoes they pick. Thus, to make the minimum wage, an Immokalee worker would have to pick 2.25 tons of tomatoes in a typical 10-hour workday. That’s 4500 pounds of tomatoes in 10 hours of back-breaking outdoor labor, just to make minimum wage. It’s safe to assume, therefore, that Immokalee’s workers are not making minimum wage. In fact, the average annual salary of a tomato-picker in Immokalee is less than $9000 (Bittman, 2011).
Farm workers rarely receive benefits such as sick days or health insurance. Children as young as 12 years old can hold agricultural jobs with many fewer protections than in other industries. Also, the tomato pickers in Immokalee are not regular employees with contracts; they show up each day with no idea as to whether there will be work for them to do or the hours they are likely to be needed.
Even the protections our government does provide are often ignored, and farm owners have found many ways to exploit their workers even after they’ve left the field. In Immokalee, the workers aren’t simply impoverished. They are also routinely beaten, locked in shipping containers, forced to live in squalor, and punished or even killed if they attempt to leave. Sexual harassment and assault of female workers is also routine. Over the past 10 years, dozens of people have been convicted of slavery charges for their unlawful confinement and treatment of thousands of workers in Immokalee. You can read about specific cases here and in detail in the articles linked to at the end of this post. The CIW doesn’t use the word slavery simply to be provocative. There are slaves in Florida, and they picked pretty much every tomato you have ever purchased.
Now, it’s obvious why the planet or the farm animals do not speak out against the abuses of the modern food system. But why would these people allow themselves to be exploited? Obviously, if you are being watched by armed guards while on the farm and locked in a crate the rest of the time, you aren’t going to have much opportunity to speak up. But many of the workers in Immokalee and elsewhere are simply powerless to advocate for themselves. Farm workers do not have collective bargaining rights, and most farm workers (70% of those in Immokalee) are immigrants with few resources. They often lack the skills, connections, or documentation to obtain better work. It is estimated that half of all our agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants, so speaking out against their abusers is especially risky.
Now, some of you may be wondering if we should care about illegal immigrants. Wouldn’t the problem just go away if the people who aren’t supposed to be here just went home? The answer is no. Legal immigrants and people participating in guest worker programs are just as exploited and mistreated as farm workers of questionable immigration status. As one of the CIW speakers commented, the agriculture industry is very fair – they exploit everyone equally. More importantly, breaking the law doesn’t strip you of your right not to be tortured, robbed, raped, or killed. The crime of entering our country illegally carries the penalty of potentially being forced to leave it. While I recognize that remaining hidden may expose a person to harm, it doesn’t make harm that befalls them any more legal. The situation in Immokalee and elsewhere is not a violation of immigrant rights but a violation of human rights.
But what if we did suddenly expel all undocumented workers from our borders? Would that improve conditions? Not likely. Instead, I would guess that another group of vulnerable citizens would start taking those jobs. Maybe, with a larger proportion of citizens, they could fight for slightly better conditions, but it would still be extremely difficult without collective bargaining and with the extreme pressure to produce the cheapest possible goods.
And that brings us to the heart of the matter. Farm workers are exploited not because they are immigrants but because they can be exploited. If one farmer can produce a cheaper product by exploiting his workers, the other farmers must follow suit or lose their competitive advantage. Or at least, that is the excuse given by the farmers when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was finally able to voice their grievances. This sounds like a lame excuse, but there is at least an element of truth here. Most people choose what and where they eat based on price. Unless it is obvious why we should pay more, we don’t. This creates a race to the bottom, in which every producer and every retailer through the entire food chain must reduce costs in order to beat out the competition. Unless we enforce and enhance the laws governing farm workers, the people who produce our food will continue to be exploited in order to provide us with the cheapest possible product.
Upon hearing these excuses, the CIW did something very smart. Rather than dealing with the folks at the bottom – farmers, for example, they went to the top of the food chain. The CIW appealed to fast food restaurants and grocery chains to commit to paying more for their tomatoes and to work with the group to make sure the extra money went to workers in Immokalee. How much more did they have to pay? One penny per pound of tomatoes. That’s it. A penny. And yet, this meager increase in price translates to thousands of dollars more each year for the tomato pickers out in the fields.
Through communication, negotiation, and even some boycotting, the Coalition has now received commitments from Taco Bell, Burger King, and Whole Foods. In addition to paying slightly more for tomatoes, these companies agree to buy only those tomatoes from farms that have committed to better treatment for their workers such as providing a shaded area for breaks. It’s sort of shocking to think that is took years of hard work just to have a place to stand out of the sun for 15 minutes during a 10-hour day. It’s a victory for the workers in Immokalee, but still only a tiny step towards truly fair food.
Ethical eating in America.
Now is the point at which I’d normally tell you all the ways you can help improve the conditions of farm workers and eat truly ethical food. Sadly, despite the successes of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, exploitation is still commonplace in our agricultural system. A student in Edible Education 101 asked where she could buy produce that has been grown without such atrocities, if there was a label or certification to look for. Unfortunately, as our speakers explained, there is no such store and no such label. Even the tomatoes sold at Whole Foods, one of the companies that buys better tomatoes through the Campaign for Fair Food, are not truly ethical. The standards for human treatment are so low that it would be irresponsible to call even the CIW approved tomatoes ethical.
Small farms don’t necessarily treat their workers any better than large farms. Organic farmers have long resisted including treatment standards in the government’s organic certification. Because organic farming is more expensive, they say, it would be crippling to also pay higher wages, offer benefits, or improve working conditions. I suppose that’s why it is so much harder to motivate people to fight for higher standards of human welfare in the food system. You can’t simply buy different food or shop at a different store. So what can you do?
First, you can care. Rather than dismissing farm worker rights as I used to, you can educate yourself about the issues involved and be ready to take action when you can. Being aware of and supporting legislation concerning the rights of agricultural workers is an important way to get involved. Immigration reform is also a large factor.
You can support CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food directly by patronizing businesses that have signed their agreement. You can also take part in their letter-writing campaigns and protests of companies that stubbornly refuse to take part – companies like my old favorite, Trader Joe’s. You can find more ways to help on the CIW’s Take Action page.
Another way you can help farm workers is by buying direct from farmers. As I mentioned already, local, organic, or small doesn’t necessarily translate to better working conditions. However, if you can develop relationships with farmers, you can probably get a better idea of their perspective and treatment of their workers. Communicating with your farmer may also allow you to ask some probing questions, such as how much it would cost to improve conditions for the workers in the field. What if all it took was a dollar more for your CSA box? Would you pay it?
Lastly, we need to get the word out about the way we treat our farm workers in this country. When I found out how poorly we treat animals on factory farms, I knew I had to make a change. And now we are talking about people. People who work hard every day so we can eat. People who are, even now, being exploited and enslaved. The more aware people are, the better. You can be a part of the solution by being witness to the moral failings of our food system and speaking out against them. To get you started, here is a list of resources that I hope you will use to push our country to change, to make sure everyone who puts in a hard day’s work gets their fair share.
- The True Cost of Tomatoes by Mark Bittman (2011)
- Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes by Barry Estabrook (2009)
- Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser
- Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook