The People Behind Your Food

September 11, 2009

As a follow-up to Labor Day, CUESA hosted a panel focused on farmworkers, featuring the experts quoted below.

melon harvestWhen it comes to humanely raised animals and produce grown in accord with the environment, many of today’s eaters know exactly how to shop their values. But what about eaters interested in knowing that workers are treated fairly and paid a living a wage? While justice has become a core component in many definitions of sustainability, it remains a far more elusive and challenging goal for consumers. While we have international Fair Trade Certification for many foods produced in the developing world, a domestic fair trade label is still in the works.

And yet, labor is crucial to food production, especially in the case of sustainable agriculture; the fewer chemicals involved, the more labor is required to keep weeds and pests at bay. Still, says Sandy Brown, co-owner of Swanton Berry Farm, “there’s this idea that farmers simply produce food themselves. There are some very small farms where that’s the case, but in actuality, 80-90% of our food is produced by hired workers. Wage labor is key.”

Many organic growers make it a point to treat their workers well, but in actuality 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,” says Alida Cantor, a research associate with 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.

“Agriculture is the most dangerous occupation in the US, hands down,” says Alegría De La Cruz, an attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. “There are 32.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers. Last year there were six heat-related deaths in California agriculture alone.”

sr_rudolfoDe La Cruz’s family has been involved with the struggle for farmworker rights for decades, and she was encouraged early by Cesar Chavez himself to become a lawyer. While she has seen the movement make significant gains via the United Farm Workers (UFW) — including a number of laws protecting unionized workers from abuse and providing them with basic rights such as unemployment insurance — she believes the problems many farmworkers face are far from over.

“One of the biggest things impacting the ability to organize farmworkers,” says De La Cruz, “is the rise in the use of labor contractors.” [Bringing in third party companies] has become a tactic used by employers to avoid liability and to put another actor right in the middle to take ‘legal responsibility’ so they don’t have to be accountable,” she says.  

Instead of the current contractor system, she says, “the more we can do to support small and medium employers with some of those costs of doing business — like a Public Option in health care, for example —  the more we can ensure a kind of co-benefit to workers’ rights.”
In the case of larger institutional food buyers, labor is even harder to prioritize.  “The anonymity of the supply chain is a huge challenge when it comes to the produce we buy,” says Maisie Greenawalt, Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO) Vice President in charge of strategic initiatives and purchasing. “In the institutional system, there are so many stops that, say, a head of lettuce makes between Salinas Valley and the school or museum where we might end up serving it. There are multiple layers of packing and distribution.”

Nonetheless, BAMCO has prioritized labor issues, most notably by working with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to sign a code of conduct in their purchasing agreement for fall and winter tomatoes. More recently, BAMCO created a fellowship program to engage young activists in assessing the labor practices on the farms the company works with through its Farm to Fork initiative, to create a set of best practices. “We want to establish a baseline set of priorities when it comes to what workers need,” she says. “And it doesn’t all have to cost money,” she adds. “Treating workers like they are whole people who have hopes and dreams and goals is a big part of it.”

crop_dusterOn the other hand, the current state of immigration policy makes achieving those goals less than easy. At Swanton Berry Farm, the only organic farm in the area to work directly with the UFW and to create a co-ownership program for long-time workers, these constraints are particularly clear.

“We’re trying to do the right thing to promote longevity in the workplace and respect the dignity of agricultural labor,” says Sandy Brown. “But if you want to reward people for working for you for a long time and their ability to do that is hindered by the immigration system, it kind of goes against the whole pro-labor concept.”

Maisie Greenawalt agrees. “Some people see farmworkers’ rights as an isolated issue,” she says. “But I think it really speaks to our immigration policy. Workers would be more willing to come forward and organize if they had legal status. 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.”

On the bright side, CIRS’s Alida Cantor is heartened by the next generation of labor activists.

She says: “A lot of college students and young people are making these connections and caring a lot about it — like folks from the Real Food Challenge and United Students for Fair Trade. They’re coming at it less from a foodie perspective, more from a social justice perspective; they see food systems holistically, and that includes people.”

Photos by Bill Gillette, courtesy of the California Institute for Rural Studies.


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