Victoria Solbert

international sustainable development professional

Locally Grown: Farmworker Issues in the US

By vicsolbert | May 18, 2015 | 0 Comment


This post is based on the research I conducted for the capstone project for my Master degree program at UC Berkeley. It is a brief summary of all that I uncovered regarding issues and abuses facing farmworkers in the United States, and I hope it will serve to raise awareness of the invisible workers who bring us our food. 

FTcoffeeMany of you have likely seen a fair trade symbol like the one picture on various products, most often coffee, tea, and chocolate. This label implies that the coffee beans or cocoa that went into this product were purchased from farmers who received a fair price, and whose workers received fair wages and had good working conditions.

Now if you have ever looked for this same symbol in the produce aisle, where more products a grown locally in the United States, you will find it lacking. But why does that matter? If you are buying locally grown produce, you might say the workers don’t need the additional protections provided by a fair trade standard.

This is not a bad assumption. After all, unlike most developing countries where fair trade products come from, workers here in the US are protected by a number of regulations that give them the legal right to a minimum wage, overtime pay, to organize and collectively bargain, set occupational health and safety standards, and prevent child labor. However for all of the regulations just mentioned, there are exemptions for the agricultural industry. In addition the monitoring and enforcement of applicable laws is extremely poor, with estimates that fewer than 1% of abuses are investigated, and fines for violations averaging only $342. There is evidence that these exemptions and lack of enforcement have led to serious negative health and livelihood impacts for farmworkers.

There are estimated to be 1.4 to 2 million farmworkers in the US, concentrated primarily in the harvest of fruit and vegetable crops, like the strawberries. A vast majority look like these gentleman. Hispanic, male, born in Mexico, and more likely than not, undocumented.

IMG_0681There is a misconception among the American populace that migrants come to the US to take advantage of welfare, when in reality only one percent of farmworkers receive such services, compared to a national average of over 20 percent. This despite that fact that nearly a quarter of farmworker families live below the federal poverty line, which is set at a generous $22,000 a year for a family of four.

These high levels of poverty are driven primarily by low wages and seasonal and unpredictable work. Official statistics show that in real terms, wages today are in fact lower than 30 years ago during the peak of farmworker unionization under Cesar Chavez. Actual wages received are likely even lower, as the most common complaint among farmworkers is wage theft, mostly through the misreporting of hours worked or amount picked.

Agriculture is one of the most hazardous industries in the country, with a fatality rate 7 times that of private industry – second only to mining. These deaths are primarily from a lack of adequate safety equipment, heat stress due to denial of breaks or access to water, and acute pesticide poisonings. The long-term impacts of chronic pesticide exposure and the physical strain from repetitive and literally backbreaking labor are not well documented, as most workers have limited access to medical care – many report never having visited a doctor in their lives and instead rely on self-care.

Despite the high fatality and injury rate for farmworkers, children and youth, who make up an estimated 10% of the workforce, actually have less protections than in other industries. Children as young as 12 can be employed on a farm, and are allowed to work for an unlimited amount of time as long as it is outside “school hours”. They have no additional pesticide exposure protections, and youth as young as 16 are allowed to do work designated as hazardous.

Women in the fields are subject to extremely high levels of sexual harassment and assault – where in the general population about 20-25% of women experience sexual harassment in their lifetimes, for farmworker women it is estimated that 70-90% experience sexual harassment on the job. In an investigation in Fresno, one field was referred to as the “fil de calzon”, or field of panties because so many women had been raped by supervisors there.

Farmworkers also often deal with overcrowded, substandard, and overpriced housing and transportation. They are vulnerable to exploitation by labor contractors and raiteros, accumulating huge debts for unlawful recruitment and transportation fees. For some, debt becomes so severe it can turn into a situation of forced labor.
US farms have always relied upon marginalized immigrant groups for labor. The industry is so reliant upon these groups in fact, that in the past few years a reduction in new immigration due to tightened border controls and an improving economic situation in Mexico has many growers in a labor shortage panic. In the face of ever increasing downward price pressures from retailers and global competition, labor is the most easily fungible expense for farm operators.

That they are more easily exploited is precisely the reason farmworkers are primarily foreign born immigrants. Many do not know their legal rights or where to go to report violations or abuses. Most have a very limited ability to speak or read English, making it difficult for them to access information or to communicate. Even if they are aware they are being cheated, fear of retaliation, loosing their jobs, and possible deportation keeps them silent.

FairFoodSome people say, “well, they have it much better off here than they would in Mexico.” Implying that their racial heritage somehow makes it okay to deny them their legal rights. This kind of ethnic discrimination silences farmworkers’ voices, making their struggles invisible, as well as justifying hierarchies of abuse and exploitation.

A fair trade certification standard for US producers has the potential to curtail these abuses. It could provide more stringent monitoring of compliance, additional training and support to farmworkers and supervisors to increase their knowledge and access to services, and create a more equal platform for dialogue between workers and employers.

There are indications that there is a viable market for domestic Fair Trade products. Interest in labor certifications from large purchasers, including major retail and food service chains, is increasing due to CSR efforts pressuring companies to clean up their supply chains. Retailers like Whole Foods, Costco, and even WalMart have already included labor practices into their supplier codes of conduct. A domestic Fair Trade certification thus has the potential to provide growers with a competitive advantage for meeting stricter purchasing standards, as well as a way of attracting and retaining a stable workforce in the face of decreasing labor supply. Existing international certifications, such as Fair Trade USA, or US labor programs like the CIW Fair Foods Program and the Equitable Food Initiative can be expanded to achieve the needed protections and empowerment of farmworker communities.



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