New Farmworker Report Paints a Big, Grim Picture

April 8, 2011

sites/default/files/workers_strawberry-bamco_report_0.jpgWhen it comes to improving conditions for farmworkers, a lack of good data is a huge obstacle. Anna Reynoso, the Mexico program director at the United Farm Workers (UFW), says she’s never had a comprehensive source of answers to questions like what protections farmworkers have under the law, what type of challenges they face, or even how many of them are living in the US. “Finding this info has been a very piecemeal process as far as having to go to one agency or organization for one report at a time,” she says.

That’s why the newly released Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States is a big step forward for farmworker advocacy. The report, a joint effort by the Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO) Foundation and the UFW (with additional support from Oxfam America), compiles crucial data on the six states (California, Florida, Oregon, Washington, North Carolina, and Texas) with the largest farmworker populations.

The Letter of the Law

BAMCO vice president Maisie Greenawalt spearheads the company’s farmworker justice efforts, including a Code of Conduct agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (a farmworker organization fighting for more humane labor standards for Florida tomato pickers) and an ongoing effort to survey workers on small farms that participate in BAMCO’s Farm to Fork Program. Greenawalt was motivated to create the new inventory after a series of meetings with Erik Nicholson, the national vice president at the UFW. In one such meeting, they were talking to a produce distributor about poor working conditions for farmworkers.

According to Greenawalt, the distributor dismissed the suggestion of illegal labor practices, saying, “‘These are big companies; they’ve got too much to lose. There’s just no way they wouldn’t be complying with the law.’” When he left, Greenawalt recalls, “Erik and I looked at each other and said, ‘He really doesn’t understand!’ The laws are so inadequate to begin with, and enforcement is so rare.”

What followed was a nearly year-long process to gather as much information as possible so they could cut misconceptions like that off at the pass. Three fellows hired by BAMCO to learn about labor practices throughout the supply chain spent the summer tracking down and compiling information for the inventory. The final report confirms what many have already suspected — that the people who work the hardest to get food to America’s plates are subject to substandard, often dangerous conditions and are largely unprotected by the law. 

We Knew It Was Bad; Turns Out It’s Worse

sites/default/files/worker_age_chart.jpgFor advocates, the complete picture painted by the inventory is at once familiar and shocking. “You might think we wouldn’t be surprised by the results,” says the UFW’s Anna Reynoso, “but it’s one thing to encounter a single wage violation one day or sexual harassment another. Reading all 70 pages of the big picture is something else.” She was surprised to learn, for instance, that farmworkers have five times the mortality rate of other workers in the US, and yet less than half of US farmworkers were covered by workers’ compensation insurance between 2005 and 2009. And that only three of the six states studied require paid rest and lunch breaks.

The report is broken down into sections, covering everything from child labor to housing and transportation (both often substandard), unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation, forced labor, heat stress, and pesticide exposure. It also includes numerous detailed charts that paint grim pictures of these workers’ conditions. 

The inventory’s child labor chart, for instance, shows that none of the six states studied have a law preventing employers from asking children to work as many as six days a week. Even in California, the state touted as having the most protection for farmworkers, a child as young as 14 can work as many as eight hours a day on schooldays, and 40 hours a week.

“I knew about children being allowed to work in the field at 12 years old, but seeing the chat really put a reality to it,” says Greenawalt. “I could really imagine being [a teenager] and having gone to high school all day and then being asked to go and work essentially a full-time job in the fields.”

Data Gaps

Despite its scope, the BAMCO/UFW inventory also highlights the gaps in the current data available about farmworkers. As the report’s executive summary puts it:

For the public, farmworker issues fall into a black hole that could be labeled “No data, no problem.”  In other words, the current lack of accessible data and documentation about farmworkers’ employment — and their ultimate role in the food system — has in effect kept farmworkers hidden from public attention. 

Vera Chang, one of the three BAMCO fellows who collected data for the report, also worked to compile the results of all the research. She was surprised by just how complex and full of roadblocks the research process turned out to be.

Take that 2009 farmworker fatality rate mentioned above. It turns out, says Chang, “it’s a pretty conservative estimate.”

“I spoke with a Bureau of Labor Statistics representative and he explained that some fatality info is held confidential. On top of the fact that there’s under-reporting by employers themselves, some fatalities aren’t linked to the original injury — long-term exposure to pesticides, for example — and small farms aren’t included in the original stats. Personally, I find five times the average to be shocking enough, but when you think about it, we don’t even have the full picture.”

However, Chang says, sparse and unreliable data is less surprising when you consider the state of farm labor law enforcement. “There are the equivalent of 22 full-time Migrant and Seasonal Agriculture Worker Protection Act investigators – for all farms in the country,” she says.

What We Can Do

sites/default/files/worker_wage_chart.jpgLike so many systematic problems, conditions for farmworkers won’t improve overnight. But chronicling the scale of problem is an important step toward change.

“Every reader of this report is a consumer of food,” says Reynoso. “And it’s important that they realize their role in the system. Because the fact of the matter is many consumers benefit from the unjust regulatory system that farmworkers toil under.”

As part of her fellowship, Chang has been speaking at universities around the country, and she has been heartened by how many students are genuinely interested in hearing about the experiences of farmworkers. She encourages them to get involved with organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Student Farmworker Alliance.

Greenawalt realizes that, while few people will actually sit down to read a 70-page report (or even the more accessible five-page summary), she hopes that those who do will feel as passionate about seeing farmworkers’ lives change as she is. Greenawalt compares the issue to sustainable seafood, another goal that presents many challenges for advocates but has seen considerable gains in recent years.

“I can’t tell you how many cocktail parties, brunches, etc. I’ve been at where someone has made a casual comment about salmon, and given me an entree to talk about [sustainable seafood choices]. And I hope the farmworker issue becomes the same. That when you’re driving from San Francisco to Monterey and you pass workers in the field, maybe you’ll turn to the people in your car and say, “Hey, did you know…?”