Today is Labor Day, a time when most Americans think of barbecues and Mondays off, not so much the people who picked the potatoes in that salad and the peaches in the cobbler, or who slaughtered and processed the steer that became that hamburger. Chances are they were paid very little for this hot, often dangerous work.
As the Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States outlined in painful 65-page detail, federal and state laws treat farmworkers differently than other workers. Children as young as 12 can legally work in the fields, with no restriction on the number of hours they can work during non-school days. Agriculture workers of all ages have fewer legal protections against unfair labor practices such as sexual harassment and don’t even have the legal right to organize. Even in California, where thanks to the activism of César Chávez, farmworkers have stronger legal protections than in other states, a lack of enforcement makes it the top state for farmworker deaths due to heat exposure and other risks.
Here’s a small but telling example of the indignities that farmworkers have to put up with. These two photos were taken by a friend visiting a labor camp for a large sweet potato grower in eastern North Carolina. The picture of the toilets shows only a part of the line of toilets in the men’s bathroom: Only every three or four toilets are separated by a curtain. None of the facilities has a door. The gymnasium-style showers also provide no privacy whatsoever to workers.
These conditions are legal in North Carolina. In other words, there is no requirement to provide workers with privacy, either when using the toilet or showering.
Can you imagine workers in any other industry being subjected to this?
This Labor Day, please join us in thinking about how we can work toward a day when the people on whom we depend to pick our food will enjoy not only basic workplace dignity, but also the same wage and other occupational protections as employees in other sectors. The reality depicted by photos like these really leave a bitter aftertaste.