When I first started learning about “good” food, I rarely thought about the complete food system: the land, plants, trees, or the people who harvested the food. I never thought about the people who live in food deserts and lack access to healthy and fresh foods. In reality, I never thought about the concept of food justice or understood that most of the injustices that occur in the food chain occur at the first stages: planting and harvesting.
Agricultural work is hard. Being outside all day, often in the hot sun, is very demanding on people’s bodies. As a result, very few Americans want to do these jobs, so farms have become reliant on immigrant labor—legal and illegal. Although our current food system relies on immigrant labor to put food on the table of most Americans, farm workers lack basic rights, face exploitation, and live in fear of reporting abuses.
Farm workers are often paid by the amount they pick ratherthan by the hour. Due to this system, workers are forced to work at a brutal pace in order to earn less than the minimum wage. An average farmworker earns about $12,000 a year, which equates to less than $6.00 an hour. In addition to living in poverty, farm workers have no job security and lack the benefits of labor laws. So what is being done to improve farm workers conditions? During my visit to Barbee Farms, a family farm in Concord, NC, I learned about the H-2A temporary agricultural workers program. According to Tommy Barbee, the program has been a great success, and he considers his workers a part of his family. The Barbee’s provide housing and transportation for the workers, and they are paid a much higher wage than they have ever received before. Tommy claims that his H2A workers work very hard and are extremely appreciative of the work; he describes the relationship as mutually beneficial. Upon further investigation, however, I discovered that this isn’t always the case on other farms.
The H2A developed from the Bracero guest worker program in the 1940’s. The Bracero program was designed to bring in immigrant workers during the busy crop seasons. Similarly, H2A brings seasonal agricultural workers to the U.S. and workers are granted a temporary work visa. It is estimated that the H2A program accounts for 3% of the United State’s agricultural workforce. A major criticism of guest worker programs is that the United States should not be bring in immigrant workers when there are so many people in the country that are unemployed. To combat this criticism, growers cannot apply for H2A workers unless they can demonstrate proof that they tried to hire U.S. workers first.
Although it seems that H2A workers are better off than undocumented farm workers, the system is certainly not perfect. A major drawback to the program is that it denies workers the ability to change jobs. A worker is brought over by a specific employer and is tied to that farm. If a worker is unhappy or being treated unjustly, he must pay for the trip back home. Although the program provides some protections for the workers, such as requiring farms to provide a place to live, these benefits are poorly enforced.
Recognizing flaws with the H2A program, what else is being done to combat injustices farm workers face? The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW), a unique partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies, has started the Fair Food Program, to ensure fair wages and working conditions for the workers who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms. The program asks large retailers to pay just one penny more per pound of produce. Currently, twelve major retailers have signed the pledge: Walmart, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and McDonalds are among the participants. Although this is a monumental first step in improved farm workers conditions, there is still a lot to be done; this is just one small victory in fixing a very broken and inhumane system.
Want to learn more?
In November 2014, Eva Longoria produced “Food Chains,” a documentary about farmers’ working conditions. The film’s goal is to “reveal the human cost in our food supply and the complicity of large buyers of produce like fast food and supermarkets.” The film can be found on Netflix.
Check out The Human Cost of Food: Farmworkers’ Lives, Labor, and Advocacy. The book presents a general overview of the challenges faced by farm workers, exposing how the US food system makes farmworkers invisible to the consumer.