Professor Meg Cooke
14 May 2018
Agricultural Workers: Is Ownership to Rental Really Progress?
The food system never sleeps in America. The process of production in our society is a constant, ever present one. It doesn’t wait or have waves of activity. Likewise the conditions experienced by the workers within our food system are also constant. Produce is delivered daily because of the toil and labor of growers and harvesters. Livestock is raised and crops are being planted, harvested and transported 365 days a year. The system is not automatic; it is only made possible by people. A majority of the agricultural workers labor in Texas, New York and California. The sources researched for Napa County, Hudson Valley and the Farm Worker Ministry, along with the slaughterhouse articles, are the support of my case.
The business principal of supply and demand is not exclusive to the availability and production of consumer goods. Usually applied to giving the customer the items in demand, should it not also be applied to full disclosure of the goal that food sourcing be beneficial for all? There is a wealth of information about companies the public is not exposed to simply because of consumer apathy. Thinking that protections are in place, consumers trust government agencies to regulate. The expectation for transparency should be demanded and supplied at all levels and extended to include both those who produce and those who purchase. The alternative to ethical disclosure of workforce conditions is everything from outright concealment of the truth to blurry portrayals and failed disclosures of realities. To illuminate conditions that largely remain in the dark, you must go see them in the light.
“Agriculture is the world’s largest industry. It employs more than one billion people and generates over $1.3 trillion dollars worth of food annually. Demand for agricultural commodities is rising rapidly as the world’s population grows.” (Sustainable Agriculture, WWF) Agriculture’s deep connection to human societies and the world’s economy makes it an important frontier. A Michigan State study found wages for migrant workers to be about half of the minimum wage, while at the same time being exposed to health hazards and overcrowded housing along with limited healthcare. ( Lewis, 2017) The sustainability of this important industry involves all functioning components. Sustainable food sources (land and environment) are components drawing the most attention, but alone they do not result in our actual supply. The jobs of our food and meat industry need to be equally sustainable, but are they?
Housing is one major problem for migrant workers, and Napa County is no exception. The high housing prices and the county ordinance which requires a great deal of land for farm worker housing are major concerns. Currently, there are 200 to 300 beds available where the needs are 1,200 to 1,300 beds. (Martin, 2000) Possible options for addressing the housing costs could be to relax the twenty acre county ordinance for housing, or busing workers from lower cost living areas or even tent camps. Wine producers in Napa county are taking a positive approach to provide affordable basic needs such as food, shelter and support to all workers. Nearly every drop of wine produced in Napa county is by migrant workers. Producers want to take care of them, because without migrant workers, wine producers in Napa realized the wine could not be produced. Practicality and compassion have motivated Napa to be proactive in meeting housing needs with federal financing not available. Vineyard owners pay $10 per acre to help house and feed the workers. Donations of food come from churches, charities and concerned citizens. In Napa, workers are paid $10 per hour, but taxes and social security are withheld, even though many will not collect the benefits. “Yet without migrant farm workers, it’s not clear that any Cabernet Sauvignon would ever make it to the glass.” (Scott, 2011)
Margaret Gray, a cultural anthropology professor at Adelphi University, published her book, Labor and Locavore, in 2017. This book places a spotlight on the agricultural labor force. The Locavore movement brings local goods into the stores of the Hudson Valley, which directly ties many of the Hudson Valley citizens to hundreds of local migrant and seasonal farm workers. New York is one of the most fertile regions in the country, producing about 45 billion dollars worth of agricultural products each year. (Gray, 2014) Gray’s belief is that farmers are not positioned to tell the complete story of farm workers. Through her interviews and years of experience with the farm workers, their own stories are delivered in her book. During her research she documents a pattern of systematic conditions specific to the industry. Farm workers have fallen between the cracks of the labor and food movements and Gray’s goal is to address this oversight. The book is written with respect for both farmers and farm workers, giving its message a very appreciated unbiased tone while including a well rounded picture about this industry’s reality.
Gray discovered evidence of labor and human rights abuses during her field research. During a visit to the farm, Gray interviewed twelve workers who reported working from six in the morning until 10 or 11 at night with only one midday break. On a regular basis she drove by the farm on various occasions to verify these long working hours. Sure enough, workers were not leaving the fields until after 10:00 pm. Field workers she met logged 90 hours a week at $.50 above minimum-wage, while dairy workers milked cows for 60 hours a week for six days per week. (Gray, 2014)
The farm’s bookkeeper also explained hours worked exceeding 50 are not entered in the books and never would be noted in official data. (Gray, 2014) If the hours were entered overtime pay would be due and legally expected. Multiple workers reported that their boss paid for hospital bills to later deduct the amount from paychecks. This is concerning because few have insurance and all are exposed to dangerous working conditions and health hazards such as contact with toxic pesticides. Gray visited the living sites of workers. One housing site presented a two room unit where eight workers slept in each room on thin and filthy mattresses laying directly upon the floor. When this group of workers was asked about their housing situation, not a single worker expressed any complaints or requests for improvements. (Gray, 2014) Gray found heavy feedback regarding loneliness and isolation, caused by separation from family for extended periods of time. Often years go by before seeing family again. Leaving to visit family or even returning to Mexico during the off season is no longer accomplished consistently, because getting back to work on US farms has become increasingly more difficult. To do so, many seasonal workers now stay year round to ensure work.
When you think about the work itself: the wages, the tasks, the nature, the hours and the seasonality versus consistency of farm work, it is not shocking that historically this sector has been reserved for immigrants. Whether it be the Chantel slaves who came from Africa, the indentured European servants, or the refugees of political and economic violence or just those seeking better opportunity, growers have always been dependant. The evolution of a farm worker’s job has been shaped by this cycle of grower dependence on underserved populations of people in desperate positions. “Farmers in most states do not enjoy the same legal protections as most other workers” (Gray, Labor and Locavore) The New Deal labor legislation excluded the agriculture industry, from overtime pay to collective bargaining to even having the right to a day of rest. This exclusion directly impacts the laborers. Gray uses a strong series of historical events, including movements, failed and passed legislative bills, which have direct relation to agriculture labor in the United States. This supports her claims while outlining the reality that little progress has actually been made for decades. She proposes Hudson Valley could set its own example by developing a distinct regional alternative to the industrial exploitation of Harmon’s. By creating their own local “food culture model” it would mean a positive step locally and serve as a functioning model for other areas of the country.
The National Farm Worker Ministry shares that substandard housing is a major shortfall for farm workers. Workers are crowded in unsanitary conditions typically far from grocery stores, public transit or health clinics. Rental fees are also very high. Typically, the landowner has a hold on rentals and will often overcharge the workers since there are seldom other alternatives. A good example is in Immokalee, Florida, where a trailer rents for $500 per week. (Taylor, 2018) Due to the high cost, multiple workers need to pack into it to make it affordable. This is a health problem since shared cooking and bathrooms can spread disease. Showers and limited laundry can promote pesticide exposure because workers are unable to shower and wash clothes due to the large number sharing the trailer. Some owners charge rental fees per person, so they can receive more money rather than a flat building rate. State and federal oversight must take place to see that housing standards and regulations are followed.
The main argument of these authors is that the voluntary improvements of immigration reform, while noble, do little to change the structure of these jobs. Structural change requires altering the law. Farming organizations have long tried to improve working conditions as the medicine for immigration reform, but history shows the cure is yet to be achieved. Farmers argue that if workers are in the country legally they will be better protected in every sense. There is truth to that logic, but it still leaves farm workers without the labor protections afforded to most other workers. Fair trade certifications can include labor concerns, but farmers have shown little cooperation. Legal status helps remove the fear of deportation or criminal charges, but it simply will not change the array of long standing embedded conditions of agricultural jobs. The farmers themselves have the most to lose. The chronic economic insecurity at the heart of their industry dates back to the era of tenant farming. In other words, farmers are entirely dependent on workers to actually cultivate a product, and U.S. workers have never managed to form a labor force themselves. Contrary to popular belief, small farms are held to even lower standards. When a grower has less than five workers on the clock, the requirement for a portable toilet disappears so long as they have accessible transportation to a sanitation facility. Logic behind this is that the cost of higher standards may put too heavy a financial burden on small farmers. Ironically, these same small farmers are idealized by those linked in with the food movement. Yet, they are not required to offer the same labor protections as larger farms in the industrial agricultural system. Also, small farms often have higher costs of produce.
Slaughter houses in the US meat processing facilities employ over 500,000 workers. (Kandell, 2009) The corporations knowingly jeopardize worker safety every day. Corporate interests consistently take precedence over worker safety. For decades, the state and federal agencies responsible for ensuring the safety and health conditions have failed to institute or enforce basic labor laws. Documented workers are hired weekly in an effort to satisfy the extremely high turnover rate in the industry which often exceeds 100% annually. (Safety, 2005)
The nature of the work is very dangerous. When you combine sharp tools and automated machinery with a high paced, crowded environment, injuries are inevitable. The single leading factor contributing to worker injuries is the speed at which the animals are killed, often referred to as the line speed. Workers suffer from chronic pains in their hands, shoulders and back due to the repetitive stress under the frantic pace that most facilities choose to operate. Workers express that line speed decreases only when OSHA is expected to show up. A former kill manager shared, “The worst thing, worse than physical danger, is the emotional toll… pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later, I had to kill them and beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.” (Dillard, 2010)
Cornell University realized the need to share the migrant laborers’ situation by offering a course in Farmworkers 431. “The course is intended to provide a very broad perspective on the world of migrant, rural laborers.” states the coordinator, Professor Ray Craib. (Lang, 2004) Students learn the living and working conditions of farm workers. They are also required to perform at least 40 hours of service such as teaching English as a second language. Meeting the workers face to face, students recognize that migrant workers are human and a valuable asset to our economy because of their work. They have come to realize the people are hard working, but still one of the lowest paid labor sectors. They are also often excluded from labor laws such as a day of rest per week, overtime pay and collective bargaining. (Lang, 2004).
When people say “Oh, it’s always been like that. These are uneducated, foreign workers, coming here to make money in our country,” it’s a brain numbing response to the topic. We have grown so accustomed to “the way it works”, because it works so well for us! It’s easy to let something slide if it totally benefits and sustains the wants and needs of consumers. We all like $4 watermelons, but what is the true cost behind the low prices. Does our current stagnant position even suggest we care to know? Pressures, key interests, and concerns become focal points in society with better and honest coverage from the media.
What is the human cost of how we make our food? In order to illuminate and disrobe the cloud that covers the issues and conditions for an immigrant’s hidden work in plants, farms, and slaughterhouses, researchers and the authors present the factors that divide workers and obscure the human costs of how we make our food. In conclusion, it is necessary to rectify the injustices of the 1930s when farm workers were excluded from federal labor standards. Farm workers also need to be offered the same labor protections. Farm work, like all work, carries an inherent dignity and should be a viable pathway to making a living without being mistreated, underappreciated or underpaid. In 1906, Upton Sinclair was one of the first to issue a cry for change with the publication of his book, The Jungle. The road to ethical, safe and healthy agricultural practices has been traveled, but the destination has not been reached!
Dillard, Jennifer. “A Slaughterhouse Nightmare.” Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy. (July 2010).
Gonzalez, Gilbert G. Guest Workers or Colonized Labor? Mexican Labor Migration to the United States. Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group. London and New York. 2016.
Grabell, Michael. “A Modern Day ‘Harvest of Shame’.” ProPublica. (March 2014).
Gray, Margaret. Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2014.
James, Scott. “Awareness of Its Dependence, Napa Takes Care of Migrant Workers.” Bay Citizen. (May 2011).
Kandel, William. Recent Trends in Rural Based Meat Processing. U.S. Department of Agriculture. (May 2009).
Lang, Susan S. “Cornell Undergraduates Learn about Lives of Migrant Workers in New Course that Emphasizes Person-to-Person Contact.” Cornell Chronicle. Cornell.edu. (May 2004)
Lewis, Barry, Martinez, Ruben, and Coronado, Juan David. Farmworkers in Michigan. Michigan State University: Julian Samora Research Institute. (August 2017).
Martin, Philip. Napa: Wine, Farm Workers and Housing. Migration.UCDavis.edu. 2000.
“Safety in the Meat and Poultry Industry, While Improving, Could Be Further Strengthened.” Government Accountability Office. 2005.
“Slaughterhouse Workers.” The Food Empowerment Project. (November 2017).
Taylor, Julie Director. Housing. National Farm Workers Ministry. (April 2018).
WWF-Endangered Species Conservation. World Wildlife Fund. Sustainable Agriculture Industries.