Agricultural Labor in the U.S.: Why Do Workers Get a Bad Deal?

This is the this is the third post in a series on the business of sustainable agriculture by the folks at Bon Appétit Management, a company that provides café and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities. To read past posts, click here.

By: Carolina Fojo, Bon Appétit Fellow

People picking the food we eat everyday have been chained up, abused, forced to work, and left without pay. The 2004 study “Hidden Slaves: Forced Labor in the United States” found that 10% of documented, forced labor in the US is in the agricultural industry. You can imagine how, hidden as it is, the modern slave industry—yes, slave industry—is not easy to track. So if 10% is the documented statistic, how many more are actually enslaved? And how many more are “merely” exploited?

As a Fellow for Bon Appétit Management Company, I will be looking into labor practices at the farm level this year. The problem has existed for a long time; what I want to know is: Why?

It’s More than Just Money.
One admirable response to this problem has been the “penny per pound” initiative by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). However, while “penny per pound” is certainly a good start, I see it in some ways as a Band-Aid to a larger problem. These workers are not exploited because they are paid low wages; they are paid low wages (or not paid at all) because they can so easily be exploited. So we can make sure to pay them, and pay them more—and we should, because poverty is no trifling thing—but unless we address WHY the system is such that people can get away with cheating their workers in the first place, we’re not really addressing the problem.

Here’s a big topic (and I mean big): Power. In many ways, that’s the real issue, isn’t it? If these workers had any sort of power, if their voices could even be heard, we would be in a very different situation right now.

So, question #1: How did it come to be that agricultural laborers, on whom our food system is completely dependent—(you can’t have tomatoes if no one picks them)— have no power with which to fight for their inherent human rights?

And, question #2: There is something about our food system that is benefiting from, and being sustained by, the exploitation of workers. If we want to change the system, we need to understand what that is—so, what is it?

Language is Revealing.
Another aspect of the labor issue can be seen in the use of language in this country. The UC Berkeley study I just mentioned found that while forced labor exists across the US, reported cases are concentrated in areas with large immigrant communities. This means that labor is also an immigrant issue..

My inner-Anthropologist is screaming at me to point out that we live in a culture which deems it acceptable to use phrases like “illegal aliens” to define human beings. Think about what those words imply—if you’re “illegal” then there’s something inherently wrong, or criminal about you, and if you’re an “alien” then you’re not even human.

(And this concept applies to both documented and undocumented immigrants, because, let’s face it, most people can’t, or don’t bother to, distinguish between the two).

So in a culture that views immigrants as “criminal non-humans,” is it really a surprise that immigrants are treated the way they are?

Let’s Rock ‘n Roll.

The point is, this issue is about a lot more than wages for farm workers. And in order to make the most effective change, we need to understand these issues. However, I am not currently in academia for a reason, and that’s because I want to pursue the questions, and ACT at the same time. Speaking of power, working for a company that serves food at over 400 locations across the country and can influence the supply chain is not a bad place to start.

So let’s ask the questions, and let’s try to find some answers. But we can’t stop there; it’s time to change the way agricultural laborers in this country are treated.

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