From MercuryNews.com, Silicon Valley Mercury News, “Opinion: Why farmworkers deserve same rights as any other workers” by Fedele Bauccio, Special to the Mercury News, 30 Mar 2011.
Thursday is César Chávez Day, in honor of the 20th century labor leader and farmworker activist. Although many progressive groups celebrate his birthday, only California and Texas formally observe it. Unfortunately, this lack of official recognition matches the attitude that most of America still has toward those who labor on the lowest rungs of our food-employment chain — farmworkers.
Some dismiss farmworker rights as an immigration issue. As the CEO of a food-service company that strives to be more sustainable, I think it’s about basic human rights. No one — no matter how they got here, no matter what their legal status — deserves the working conditions found on so many of our farms. It’s time we face the truth: America depends on migrant labor to make our food supply viable, and yet despite the heroic efforts of César Chávez and others, farmworkers remain the least protected class of workers in this country.
That lack of legal protection often turns into abuse. In order to do their jobs, farmworkers too often must deal with sexual harassment, wage theft, filthy field toilets (or none at all), lack of clean drinking water, squalid housing, and scorching heat, sometimes with no access to shade. On top of those conditions–or perhaps because of them–they face some of the highest rates of occupational death, injury, and disease.
I saw a lot of this firsthand as I spent a year exploring farm operations from Florida to San Diego. In the end, I was furious and frustrated by the lack of an obvious fix. How could our company, which serves more than 120 million meals a year, contribute to fair farm-labor practices?
Our first move was to try to make a difference in Florida, whose farms produce 90 percent of winter tomatoes grown east of the Mississippi and have committed some of the most heinous human-rights violations in the country. Working with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, we created a Code of Conduct that requires fair wages and decent working conditions, and we stopped buying tomatoes from farms that wouldn’t sign it. Other companies joined us. I’m proud to report that the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange — the industry group that once threatened to fine any farm that signed the Code — has adopted the Code for all its growers. This landmark decision has created the first steady stream of fair-labor tomatoes from Florida.
But I want more. As our experience in Immokalee taught us, advocating on behalf of farmworkers has to be a collaborative effort to succeed — a conversation between industry, growers, farmworkers and advocates. After our work in Florida, I sought out Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). As we discussed the conditions throughout the nation, we found that despite our wildly different professions, we’re after the same things: safety, security and opportunity for all people.
A report released today, “The Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States,” details the shameful absence of laws protecting farmworkers, state by state.
This situation is unacceptable. Activists, restaurateurs, consumers, growers and farmworkers themselves must demand that farmworkers’ rights become part of our food consciousness. Start by asking the farmers, restaurants, supermarkets and food-service providers you patronize not only who grew the food you’re eating, but who picked it — and how they were treated.
As a restaurateur, my responsibility is multiplied exponentially by the number of meals that Bon Appétit serves. But the truth is, if you eat, you too are responsible for the people who harvested your food. Food produced without concern for basic human dignity leaves a bitter aftertaste. We can do better, and we will.
FEDELE BAUCCIO is the founder and CEO of Bon Appétit Management Company, a food service provider that operates more than 400 cafés in 31 states. He wrote this article for this newspaper.