Advocacy & Activism, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Employers & Employment, Working Conditions

Got food? Thank a Farmworker

From HampdenParkCoop.com, Meredith Sommers, 5 Jun 2011.

Hampden Park Co-op shoppers are well aware of whether their food is organic or conventional, and its country of origin, thanks to the labeling that is now in place. When we buy bananas, coffee, or chocolate, all products of other countries, we know if they are Fair Trade items, and we assume that the farmers and farmworkers are paid a fair price for their products, and that they engage in environmentally friendly practices.

Fair Trade is a movement that seeks greater equity in International trade. According to Oxfam America, the Fair Trade label signifies that the trading conditions help secure the rights of producers and workers in marginalized countries. The Fair Trade movement has united farmers, workers, traders, and consumers with a message of fairness, equity, and environmental stewardship in international trade. Peace Coffee of Minneapolis, for example, imports coffee from countries like Ethiopia and Nicaragua, where in the past, working conditions have been dismal and insufficient pay has kept workers in poverty. Peace Coffee’s dedication to support and buy directly from farmer cooperatives has brought better wages and working conditions to hundreds of men, women, and children, as well as the possibility for education.

While much-needed attention has been given to international fair trade, the social justice or human rights component of domestic food production in the United States has lagged behind. Consumers often are unaware of working conditions for farmworkers in our country. However, domestic fair trade is now gaining momentum, due, in part, to the Domestic Fair Trade Association, which is composed of consumer and producer organizations that are engaged in education, marketing, and advocacy as part of their commitment to fair trade. Their social justice principles affirm and promote workers’ rights, human rights, and human dignity. The domestic Fair Trade label is synonymous with fair wages, fair prices, and fair employment practices.

Because agriculture is one of the most dangerous and low-paying occupations, the industry is not able to find enough local workers, so it recruits people who are desperate for work and are willing to migrate seasonally.

There are two to three million farmworkers in the United States, and of these, close to 90% are Spanish-speakers; 25% are U.S. citizens; and the remainder are from Mexico or Central America.

Often not understanding English, farmworkers labor under adverse conditions and are vulnerable to abuse and unethical practices on farms and in communities. These abuses are rarely reported.

For example, the plight of farm workers in California was beneath the radar of consumers until there was a well-organized campaign, the grape boycott led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in the 1970s. After many years of consumers’ refusal to eat California grapes, the United Farmworkers won a union contract.

More recently, a campaign begun a dozen years ago by tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, has recently gained momentum to increase the workers’ pay and improve their working conditions. Through the “1¢ more per pound” campaign, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) won a contract with Taco Bell in 2005 to raise the per-pound pay and make working conditions more humane.

This victory followed CIW’s 30-day hunger strike in 1998, which drew attention to their plight. Thousands of sympathizers throughout the United States picketed and boycotted their local Taco Bell, requesting the company increase the workers’ pay by one cent for every pound they picked. The pressure mounted, and finally, Taco Bell agreed. A “fair food” agreement was signed.

With this victory, Imokalee farmworkers and supporters were inspired to continue to target other large-scale buyers of tomatoes. Whole Foods was the first food chain to sign on to a Fair Food agreement with CIW, recognizing that the well-being of farmworkers is also in their corporate interest. Subway soon followed, as did Burger King. In 2007, McDonald’s made a landmark agreement with CIW, following talks mediated by former President Jimmy Carter.

The most recent targets of the CIW Fair Food campaign are Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, and Quiznos. Although Trader Joe’s has made a verbal agreement to pay tomato pickers an extra penny per pound, the CIW says there is no way to verify it, and therefore no way to enforce it.

Domestically, farmworkers have been excluded from nearly all of the major federal labor laws, such as labor organizing, minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor laws. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a farmworker’s average annual income is $11,000, which makes farm work the second- lowest paid job in the nation, after domestic labor. Despite their poverty status, less than 1% use general assistance, 2% use Social Security, and only about 15% are Medicaid recipients.

How can we become advocates for farmworkers? Education and investigation are the first step. There are web sites listed below that carry current information about farmworkers.

The next step is to use that knowledge for action. Buy products that promote social justice and human rights. Support local members of the Domestic Fair Trade Association, which include Centro Campesino, Peace Coffee, Seward Co-op, and Organic Valley Family of Farms in Wisconsin.

For more information:

  • New Harvest, Old Shame is an updated version of the original 1960 CBS film on farmworkers in the United States.
  • Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian, and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida.
  • Domestic Fair Trade Association is a membership organization whose work includes promotion of justice for workers.

[Meredith Sommers’ interest in farmworkers began when she picked apples with migrant families more than 50 years ago. More recently, she was on staff of the Resource Center of the Americas, now called La Conexion de las Americas.]

Source: HampdenParkCoop.com, “Got food? Thank a farmworker” by Meredith Sommers, 5 Jun 2011.

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