Farm Labor Experts: The Solution is Not For Sale

istock_000004242992xsmallFriend o’ Ethicurean Twilight Greenaway writes about sustainable food for San Francisco’s Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), which nourishes, inspires and educates SF residents and visitors by running the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and other educational programs. We’re big fans of Twilight’s CUESA e-letter, which features weekly market specialties, recipes, and wise thoughts about food. You can share in the bounty by subscribing here. A version of this post appeared in last Friday’s edition.

“The most important thing you can do if you care about fair food is support an immigrant rights agenda in this country,” said Sandy Brown of Swanton Berry Farm. “There is nothing more important, as far as I can tell.”

Brown was speaking on a recent panel called The Fruits of Their Labor, sponsored by the Center for Urban Education for Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA). She was joined by three other women, all in some way engaged in the struggle to place worker justice on equal footing with other, more well-worn aspects of sustainability.

The panelists included Alegría De La Cruz, a staff attorney for the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment; Maisie Greenawalt, Vice President of Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO), Alida Cantor, a research associate with the California Institute for Rural Studies, and Brown, a co-owner of Swanton Berry farm and doctoral candidate researching agricultural labor. Although they brought a range of perspectives to the discussion, the need to raise awareness of immigration reform as a crucial piece of the sustainable food movement was a clear theme. And for good reason.

For the last several months, advocates, authors and doctors have been shining a light on the fundamental connection between food and healthcare. Thanks to Obama’s latest speech and the responses it elicited, the connection between healthcare and immigration is also front and center. The third side of this triangle – the interconnection between immigration and our food system — is perhaps the easiest for many eaters to overlook, making it all the more important to explore.

A Grim Reality

Panelist Alegría De La Cruz, a third-generation worker advocate who said her decision to become a lawyer was influenced by advice she received from family friend Cesar Chavez, laid out a series of stark facts about the people who grow most of the nation’s food.

“Agriculture is the most dangerous occupation in the US, hands down. It is also some of the worst-paid work there is,” she said, adding that there are 32.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers in the industry. Last year alone, there were six heat-related deaths in California agriculture. And due to a combination of low wages and the seasonal nature of agriculture, the average farmworker still only makes between $7,000 and $12,000 a year.

When it comes to getting the same legal protection that other workers have, farmworkers and their advocates have long faced an uphill battle. Many of the major federal laws passed in the last century to protect workers have explicitly excluded those working on farms. And while some laws have been amended, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), those amendments still include appalling loopholes. For all the talk of child labor in other nations, for example, the FLSA sets the minimum age for farmworkers at 12 years old, while every other industry requires employers to hire workers over the age of 16.

“The laws that do exist in California are among the best in the nation,” said De La Cruz. “But enforcement is difficult in rural areas, where people lack access to lawyers.” Before moving to the Bay Area earlier this year, De La Cruz spent six years working on the front lines, as an advocate for migrant workers for California Rural Legal Assistance in Fresno, where half of the state’s farmworkers earn only about a third the state’s farm wages. There, she found herself enforcing the most basic rights.

“I saw cases based on failure to provide minimum wage, failure to provide ample housing, forced sexual contact with employers,” she said. “In one case, an employer even chased a family of workers with a bulldozer. These are the kinds of cases I saw on a daily basis.”

Large growers and business owners get around labor laws primarily by hiring third-party contractors, who in turn hire workers. “The legal system lets growers be insulated by a contractor system,” said De La Cruz. “It’s similar to what’s happened to most low-wage industries across the country; it allows growers not to see what’s happening in the field [and shields them from] liability.”

No Documents, No Rights

Where other populations would be free to protest these conditions, undocumented workers tend to find themselves between a rock and a hard place, noted Swanton’s Sandy Brown.

“Workplace rights come about through workers standing up for themselves when they have civil rights.  If you’re not here legally, its nearly impossible to engage in collaborative action,” she said. She estimated that 85-90% of food production in the United States is produced through hired workers. The vast majority “are immigrants and naturalized citizens that are living in fear.”

Swanton Berry Farm, arguably the most progressive farm in California when it comes to labor issues (it is the only organic farm to have entered into a contract with the United Farm Workers), struggles with the barriers of immigration law daily. The farm offers a comprehensive benefits package–vacation and holiday pay, a retirement plan, and health benefits–which costs them as much as 50% more than the average farm spends on labor. The farm also offers an employee stock ownership program that, as Brown put it, “provides some buy-in and ability to share in the value of the farm.” Swanton gives raises to workers over time and does whatever it can to create and maintain a market for their winter crops so they can provide work beyond the summer growing season.

“Longevity is a good signal of social sustainability,” she says.  “And we want to respect the dignity of agricultural labor and reward people for sticking around…but the immigration conundrum really hinders that.”

Organic Does Not Mean Fair Labor

Many organic growers make it a point to treat their workers well, but an organic label says nothing about labor standards. A 2008 study by the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS) looking at farm labor conditions on organic farms found that while some aspects of the work environment were improved in an organic setting, others were not.

“Organic farms had better wages than conventional farms, and better bonuses,” said Alida Cantor of CIRS, “but conventional farms were more likely to have health insurance and traditional benefits.” And while workers on organic farms experience less exposure to toxic chemicals, they face other challenges.

Until a food justice-oriented food label goes mainstream (the Domestic Fair trade label is still being piloted in the upper Midwest), the options for eaters are virtually nonexistent in this realm. And while a label guaranteeing fair food would likely be popular with those already choosing organic and international fair trade products, it might also keep eaters from looking beyond their own consumer choices for a solution, Brown believes.

“I’m not going tell you that buying our strawberries is a way to achieve a more socially just food system,” she said. “Being informed as consumers is important. But at the end of the day, social justice can’t be bought – it has to be fought for. The way to do that is through public regulation and policy advocacy, things that everybody has to be involved with, not just farmworkers and their families.”

Institutional Buying Power

BAMCO’s Maisie Greenawalt echoed Brown’s sentiments. “I don’t think that Bon Appétit can buy us out of the problem,” she said. Nonetheless, as a business that runs 400 cafes and serves 120 million meals a year, the company has begun a taking an active interest in finding ways to take a position on farmworkers’ rights. Greenawalt said the company had moved labor out of the “we’d love to do something about it, but we don’t quite know what yet” phase this spring after making a visit to Immokalee, Florida, where the bulk of this country’s winter tomatoes are grown by poorly paid, indigenous workers.

“Even though I had read about the situation and the slavery cases in Immokolee, it was still shocking to see the place,” she said. After witnessing the substandard conditions the workers face, BAMCO worked with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to develop a code of conduct that requires a “minimum fair wage, worker empowerment stipulations, and incentives to growers who exceed minimum requirements of the agreement.” (See more information in this BAMCO press release.)

That decision will undoubtedly have an impact on their ability to source tomatoes. “Other foodservice companies signed a contract agreeing to buy tomatoes under the code if they were available, and if not, they would buy whatever tomatoes were available,” said Greenawalt. BAMCO, however, chose only to buy tomatoes grown under the code–and when they’re unavailable, they will go without. This winter, the company plans to use signage in their cafes to inform customers of their reasoning when the menu standard is missing from salad bars and sandwiches. BAMCO has also recently added a farm practice assessment fellowship program that will include taking a close look at the labor practices.

Institutional buying power is exponentially stronger than that of the individual, so BAMCO does have a potential to have an impact. But Greenawalt says that the company has also realized how entrenched and long-standing labor issues are. In a brief interview before the panel, she also pointed to immigration as a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to improving the lives of farmworkers.

“Some people see farmworkers’ rights as an isolated issue. But I think it really speaks to our immigration policy. We have a food system and a set of prices that are based on low-paid jobs where the worker takes on a fair amount of the risk; workers would be more willing to come forward and organize if they had legal status.”

4 Responsesto “Farm Labor Experts: The Solution is Not For Sale”

  1. >>Organic labels say nothing about labor standards<<
    Why would it? Fair Labor issues and also locally-grown sourcing should be separately indicated in the food labeling.
       The one thing that “organic” does indeed indicate is that the workers are not exposed to pesticides and other harmful chemicals in the growing process therefore a great benefit and improvmement in their working conditions and further health.

  2. Jed "the country bumpkin" says:

    I would love to see consumers willing to pay both the organic premium and a fair labor premium together.  I’m afraid that in any economy this is not going to be the case.  The reason that Fair Trade products do ok is that the majority are produced in developing nations where people make .50/hour so consumers in this country can afford it.  In California the minimum wage is $8/hr. and many farms pay between $10-13/hr. to farmworkers (albeit, I understand much of the work is seasonal).  With workers comp costing between .50-$1/hr. extra, plus all the employer-paid taxes, where on earth is there room to pay workers more, let alone provide health insurance?  Yes, many studies show that consumers will say they “care” about labor treatment, but that is different from how consumers actually act at the market.  Yes, regulations/policies need to be made, but not on the backs of farmers (& eventually farmworkers). Start with single-payer health care, insurance programs for non-citizens, expanded visa program for farmworkers, options for car insurance and driver’s licenses for non-citizens, & cut the red tape so that farmers can provide basic housing options on their farms without years & thousands of dollars of permitting.

  3. >>Organic labels say nothing about labor standards<<
    Point of fact – hand-weeding was banned in California, because it condemned [mostly] migrant workers to lay on the ground all day plucking weeds with their fingers. Organic Ag managed to get itself an exemption. No love for the latinos there.
    I applaud Swanton Berry Farm’s efforts!

  4. Eliza Chute says:

    I definitely agree that farm workers fights and our food is inevitably linked to immigration policy, and also that policy change in this case will probably be more effective than consumer buying power.   I think it is probably easier to sway someone’s vote than their wallet.  However, immigration has been a very controversial issue for a while now.   How can we create an immigration policy that speaks to farm workers rights that will be passed?  In essence, what Immigration bill or policy should we be advocating for and how can we form an argument to persuade those who want stricter immigration laws to a different point of view?