By Daniel Gonzales, Fundación AVINA
This Monday, March 31, we celebrate Cesar Chavez Day, and remember the challenges faced and battles fought by farm workers across the country. It’s also a time to discuss the fight that lives on today in the U.S. and abroad—a fight for fair wages and safe working conditions in an industry held up by a population of laborers whose rights are often difficult to protect.
In North America, most farm workers come from Latin America. The U.S. Department of Labor, for example, says that close to 90 percent of farm workers are Spanish-speakers, and more than half of immigrant farm workers nationwide do not have legal protection. More indigenous workers from rural Mexico and Central America are arriving, as well as guest workers from Asia. Although they pay payroll taxes and contribute anywhere from $6 billion to $7 billion in Social Security funds, migrant farm workers do not come to the United States to get welfare because of the simple fact that they are not eligible.
Let’s take the case of Angela Mayor and her husband Pedro Peren, who own a small strawberry farm in Central America. Unfortunately, there is not enough work to support the whole family, which is why their son, Edmer Aroldo Peren, must leave home to find work. As the son of farmers, his skills best lend themselves to agricultural work, so he decides to travel to North America for harvest season each year.
Once there, a whole new wave of challenges can arise. He may find himself working with harmful agrochemicals, earning extremely low wages and laboring around the clock with no access to healthcare. A recent article by Aviva Shen points to a survey of farm workers in New Mexico, where managers threatened to fire workers if they refused to work in direct contact with dangerous, carcinogenic pesticides.
One solution could be expanding the scope of existing models, like Fair Trade for example. Fair Trade is a well-established and proven approach to supporting farmers and workers. It’s also an important way for consumers to identify products that were grown with care. Historically Fair Trade certification has only been available to farms in the developing world, meaning that a majority of the products in North American grocery stores (and the people behind them) have been outside its scope. According to the USDA, more than 80 percent of food consumed in the U.S. is produced domestically. Given the positive work the Fair Trade movement has been pursuing for decades in the developing world, it could also be very beneficial if applied in the global North.
Any farms that earn Fair Trade certification, wherever they may be, must meet and adhere to stringent social and environmental standards. These include: safe working conditions, regulated chemical use, restrictions on work hours, equal opportunity employment, freedom of association and recruitment best practices. They also earn community development premiums to invest in important projects like housing, education and healthcare.
It’s also possible that skills built on Fair Trade farms in the North will benefit that worker when he/she returns home, potentially creating new economic and leadership opportunities in both places.
Though this journey is in its infancy, there have already been many benefits for the workforce thanks to the farm’s step forward with Fair Trade. When one Central American farm worker, Carlos Corona, was asked what he thought about Fair Trade’s restriction on excessive working hours, he stated, “[A] maximum is great. Money is nice…but we also need to take care of ourselves. We must watch our health, too.”
Supporting recruitment best practices (i.e. how workers actually get to the farms) is also important, to ensure that individuals don’t take on significant debt while pursuing job opportunities abroad:
“Getting reimbursed [for recruitment costs] is great because we have very scarce economic resources,” added Corona. “I worked six years in my home town, but we barely made ends meet. This money I get back definitely will go for my eldest daughter’s education, to pay for her school fees and materials.”
With this innovation, Fair Trade USA is taking their existing standard, which has been in development and improved upon for decades, and making it more inclusive. They also want to create more opportunities for people to choose Fair Trade more often and enable retailers to sell Fair Trade produce throughout the year (without being limited by seasonality). These products would add to the still-growing Fair Trade market--with more than 12,000 products now in over 150,000 retail locations.
By having a predictable, safe and inclusive supply chain, everybody wins. And Avina, a Latin American foundation I represent, is proud to support Fair Trade USA’s progressive and leading role in shaping Fair Trade globally, this Cesar Chavez Day and beyond.
Image credit: James Rodríguez © 2013 Fair Trade USA
Daniel Gonzales directs Avina's international strategy and team for Migrations. He is also a member of WTT, Avina’s for-profit spinoff, combining state-of-the-art technology with high-impact business models. He has 13 years of experience investing in the development of businesses and public-private partnerships for sustainable development with the social, business and public sectors in over 25 countries. He is a Board member in 4 social enterprises and 2 venture capital funds. Daniel holds a double degree as a Global Executive MBA from Georgetown University (USA) and ESADE (Spain). He is a former professor from de Universidad de los Andes Business School; holding a degree in Industrial Engineering from the same University. He also holds several executive education diplomas, including one on building ventures from Harvard Business School. Daniel is based in Bogotá, Colombia.
Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit organization that is the leading third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States. Fair Trade USA audits and certifies transactions between U.S. companies and their international suppliers to guarantee that the farmers and workers producing Fair Trade Certified goods were paid fair prices and wages, work in safe conditions, protect the environment, and receive community development funds to empower and uplift their communities.