CIRS Blog about Rural California

Give Thanks for the Harvesters

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Bent Backs and Cheap Food
I grew a garden this year. I harvested pumpkins, summer squash, peppers, a few tomatoes, green, purple and yellow beans and melons.

My garden is pretty small but just to get these few fruits and vegetables, was back breaking. Keeping out the weeds—that was my least favorite and most time intensive job. My back and legs would be sore from bending over for less than a half a day. It made me think more than I usually do about the labor that goes into “our daily bread.” (I actually can’t even fathom the work that goes into a loaf of bread—from the decisions of which seed to buy and onward to planting, cultivating, harvesting, threshing, winnowing and milling—and that’s just for the flour. Getting to the bread takes even more thought, effort and skill.)

As I pulled out the exhausted vines from my summer garden and dreamed of my winter garden, I suddenly stopped and thought about all of those who work in the food chain to provision our Thanksgiving tables but who may not be feasting on this national day of celebration.

This led to my thinking about the word “chain” as it is used in “food chain.” It can symbolize both the linkages from farm to face and the bondage to poverty many of those who work in this industry live with.

Workers in our food chain are the poorest members of our society. According to The Hands that Feed Us, only 13.5% of workers in the food industry earn a livable wage. “More than 86 percent of workers reported earning subminimum, poverty, and low wages, resulting in a sad irony: food workers face higher levels of food insecurity, or the inability to afford to eat, than the rest of the U.S. workforce.”

 Arvin weeder David Bacon

Photo by David Bacon

Food workers are unable to afford food.

I know the data. CIRS has done two studies on farmworker food insecurity and we are beginning a third. Whenever I state the fact that many farmworkers go without food so that they can pay rent or medical costs, people simply can’t understand this.


The hard work that goes into growing food results in poverty for those who expend their energy in that task. We have created a system that only works if we agree that some of the workers in that system are treated unfairly. We have agreed that, because we want cheap food, there will forever be an underclass of workers who cannot even afford that cheap food we demand.

I’m willing to pay more for my food if it insures that the most marginalized workers in the system receive a fair wage. But how can we be assured that the food we buy is not grown on the backs of the poor? And how do we know if children picked our sweet potatoes? Because despite the belief that we have fair labor laws in the US, kids can still be hired workers on farms. They can’t file papers in our offices but they can apply pesticides and drive tractors. They can harvest and haul loads of fruits and vegetables.

So we need to ask our federal government to make some changes.

1. Reconsider damaging international “free trade” agreements and think about what “fair trade” agreements would look like. This kind of change would reduce the pressure on peasants to migrate in search of a path to survival.

2. We need to pass laws to reform immigration for those workers already here. The steps for deferred deportation taken last week by President Obama were a humane and positive move but temporary. We need to make reform fair to farm laborers by removing the exploitable condition of “illegal” labor and replacing it with workers who have labor rights, who can organize, cannot be deported because they speak up for their rights and have a potential path to legal status. And, really, we need to stop thinking of farm laborers as “guest workers.” This designation just institutionalizes bonded servitude.

3. Let’s raise the minimum wage across the board in the US. End the “tipped” wage of restaurant workers and piece rate work for farmworkers. I know a lot of people will argue with the latter but we need to think of more creative ways to reward hard workers in farm fields than to encourage them to physically damage themselves.

4. All provisions of federal labor standards that govern conditions of employment in the private retail sector, wholesale trade, transportation, construction and manufacturing industries should apply to hired farm laborers on an equal basis -- including an end to child labor.

5. The National Labor Relations Act should stop excluding agricultural and domestic workers from the federally protected right to engage in concerted action to improve wages and working conditions.

However, until we unite to demand and get these changes we can purchase food that reflects positive labor practices.


Look for the Fair Food label introduced by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in your local Whole Foods. If you joined us for our screening of Food Chains on Monday, you will know what I’m talking about. If you didn’t you can still view it on Itunes. The label originated with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Campaign for Fair Food, which began with a handful of Florida tomato pickers discussing how to improve their situation. They aimed to raise wages by a penny per pound and improve labor conditions in the fields. These fields have been plagued by wage theft, sexual harassment and modern-day slavery but CIW is working to empower tomato harvesters and are now seeing the results of their efforts.

Look for the label introduced by the Agricultural Justice Project. Right now, these are our clearest choices for supporting fairness for farm laborers but they cover a fraction of workers in the fields. We need to make changes but we can only do that if we are unified in our voices and actions.


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