The invisible workers: A Labor Day tribute

It’s still Monday on the West Coast, so here, under the wire, is my second annual Labor Day ode to workers in the food system. (The first one is here.) Although I was busy staffing the tap water dispensary for most of Slow Food Nation weekend, I did manage to escape for long enough to attend a panel on agricultural labor. Moderator Eric Schlosser, best known for authoring the meaty exposé Fast Food Nation (I’d also urge everyone to read his more recent book, Reefer Madness, for an incredible look at the lives of strawberry pickers in California), summed it all up as the panel opened: Workers plant seeds, harvest crops, pack them for shipping, prepare food for consumption, and serve or sell it. Without them, we’d be — well, pretty screwed. And yet when it comes to public food consciousness, workers always seem to be eclipsed by issues that consumers find more personally compelling: Nutrition and health concerns, freshness and taste, environmental pollution.

Why are food-system workers so invisible? Perhaps it’s their status: More than 1 million [pdf] of the 3 million U.S. farm workers are undocumented, while an estimated 10 to 15% of all restaurant workers lack papers. By nature, their status requires that they fly under the radar and go unrecognized (and unprotected) by public and legal structures. Or it could be that most workers in the food system are not unionized, so they have no opportunity to demonstrate their collective presence. Or perhaps it’s just another example of the human tendency to think about things that directly affect us — will the pesticides on this apple poison my child? Will the Teflon on this pan screw up my endocrine system? — before we consider the implications for people we don’t know. I can’t judge that tendency; I’m just as guilty of it as the next person. But I can plead that we all start paying more attention to the workers who give us our food.

In that vein, here’s a Labor Day rundown of some of the major victories and ongoing struggles for farm and food workers over the last year. Have more to add? Please share them in the comments.

Victory: Coalition of Immokalee Workers takes Burger King to the mat. More than three years after the CIW negotiated its historic agreement with Taco Bell to pay workers $.01 more per pound for the tomatoes they pick for the company, and a year after the coalition reached the same agreement with McDonald’s, Burger King bowed to the pressure this past May (but not before hiring a private investigator to spy on the coalition and its sister organization, the Student/Farmworker Alliance. Guess they really wanted to have it their way!). The agreement will cost the company, which raked in $2.2 billion in revenues in 2007, an estimated $300,000. Meanwhile, tomato pickers in Immokalee make an estimated $10,000 to $14,000 a year in wages. Next stop: Chipotle, which has refused to come to the table with the CIW and is reportedly looking for cheap tomatoes outside of Florida instead. “Food with integrity”? Not so much.

The struggle continues: Florida’s tomato industry sucks bigtime. The CIW approach was revolutionary in that it didn’t target the employers of the exploited workers, but instead went after the big tomato buyers. Their decision was made in response to farm owners’ insistence that they couldn’t pay workers more because they themselves were being squeezed by the big buyers, who offered absurdly low prices for tomatoes. But now that the CIW has succeeded in getting behemoths like BK and McD’s to shell out, the industry has changed course. The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange recently warned its members that if they passed down buyers’ extra penny a pound to their workers, the FTGE would charge them a $100,000 fine per worker. FTGE Vice President Reggie Brown referred to the CIW agreements as “illegal and un-American.” Yep, nothing says “patriot” like a good dose of exploitation!

Victory: Fighting slavery in the fields. While we’re on the topic of industry suckage, CIW has also successfully exposed and prosecuted over a half-dozen cases of farmworker slavery in Florida, most recently in January of this year. As reported by the Fort Meyers News-Press, in the January case, farm owners “held more than a dozen people as slaves on their property… made them sleep in box trucks and shacks, charged them for food and showers, didn’t pay them for picking produce, and beat them if they tried to leave.” Yeah. Slavery is not just a word used by activists for dramatic emphasis. Earlier this year, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders described the conditions he saw while touring farmworker communities in Florida: “The norm is disaster, and the extreme is slavery.” He followed: “Those are workers who are more ruthlessly exploited and treated with more contempt than any group of workers that I’ve ever seen.” (See some incredible CIW photos of tomato workers here.)

The struggle continues: Farmworkers’ legal protection is pitiful. Efforts by groups like the CIW and United Farm Workers are critical, but so is a functioning safety net for farmworkers set by federal legislation. As it stands, the law treats farmworkers differently than other workers. Child labor law in particular is a different animal; children as young as 12 are legally allowed to work in the fields, and there is no restriction on the number of hours they can work during non-school days. Ag workers of all ages have fewer legal protections against unfair labor practices and don’t have the legal right to organize, since they were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act [pdf]. Even in we’re-better-than-everyone California, where workers have stronger legal protections than in other states, a lack of enforcement makes it the number-one state for farmworker deaths. There is one inspector for every 90,000 workers in California, violations are routinely passed over, and fines are pathetically small. Just since May, six farmworkers have died of heat exposure, including a 17-year-old winegrape picker who was two months pregnant. (The record-high fine levied for her death, which the employer is appealing, was $260,000.) Until farmworker protections are strengthened through federal legislation and more money is available for enforcement, we’ve got a piecemeal approach to human rights in the U.S.

Victory (partial): The CA state assembly approves secret ballots for union votes. This past Friday, the CA state assembly approved AB 2386, which will allow farmworkers to vote to form a union using a secret ballot — which they can fill out in their homes — rather than having to vote in their place of employment, where employers can monitor (and undermine) the process. Bill sponsor Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) voiced hope that the ability to form unions more easily could help farmworkers advocate for their rights more effectively. That’s awesome — but I’ll reiterate the need for national-level protection and enforcement in addition to the great work of unions. And for real, we need to take this thing national.

The struggle continues: The Fed fails to protect basic rights of meatpacking workers– and then violates them in immigration raids. The Postville, IA raid is the most recent example, but similar treatment has been exposed during raids of the Swift and Co. plants in Minnesota and elsewhere. Meanwhile, government enforcement against employers for workers-rights violations in the food industry is pathetic (see here, here and here for but a few examples).

There’s lots to do before the next Labor Day.

Photo of workers harvesting yellow peppers in Gilroy, CA courtesy of istockphoto.

4 Responsesto “The invisible workers: A Labor Day tribute”

  1. Something that amused our family and generated some discussion around the dinner table is the fact that we work on labor day, as do most people we know (very rural area, lots of loggers, farmers, etc). The dairies keep going too because the cows didn’t just magically stop giving milk for the holiday. The general store was open too. So my kids started tallying up who works and who doesn’t work on labor day. Turns out that, at least around here, almost all the people who get the day off work in government. Ah, now we know what labors are celebrated by the holiday…

  2. Brian Depew says:

    Excellent post, Elanor. And it’s not just vegetable laborers. The complete industrialization of poultry production and now the near complete industrialization of pork production means many workers labor inside animal confinement units enjoying only marginally better working conditions than the animal’s living conditions for whom they care. 

  3. Debra Eschmeyer says:

    Kudos to acknowledging CIW’s success along with how far we still need to go on the path to farmworker justice. Elanor, send this piece to national print publications for next year’s Labor Day…make your third annual article reach the masses so they appreciate what brought their food to their table.

  4. When I was in Davis, CA, a local Latino farm workers organization would make tamales for people for thanksgiving as an extra way to make money, they were hard to resist. But one thing irked me about California farm worker laws when I had learned about it. You see, the back breaking (or mud-crawling) task of hand-weeding was rightfully made illegal in the state, but an exception was granted for Organic farms. Not weeding with hoes, but weeding by hand. IMHO that practice belongs in this list of issues for farm workers, and the humanitarian violation comes from an unexpected source.