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Migrant Workers and America’s Harvest of Shame August 2, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Food, Labor, Race.
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Roger’s note: I participated in the Cesar Chavez lead farmworkers struggle in California in the late 1960s, and it is more than disheartening to know that fifty years later things have not improved.  But why am I not surprised?  Under capitalist economic relations, things always get worse, with only occasional temporary mitigation that results from intense labor organizing.  That exploitation and degrading working conditions are rife in the realm of harvesting the very food we eat is a tribute to the dehumanizing world of capitalism we inhabit.  Big agri-business and the whores (with apologies to honest sex trade workers for the use of the term) in all three branches of government that are responsible for this disgrace are criminals by any logical definition of the term.

The great reporter Edward R. Murrow titled his 1960 CBS documentary Harvest of Shame on the merciless exploitation of the migrant farmworkers by the large growers and their local government allies. Over fifty years later, it is still the harvest of shame for nearly two million migrant farmworkers who follow the seasons and the crops to harvest our fruits and vegetables.

(Photo: FLOC)

As a student I went through migrant farmworker camps and fields and wrote about the abysmally low pay, toxic, unsafe working conditions, contaminated water, housing hovels and the complete absence of any legal rights.

It is a perversely inverted society when the people who do the backbreaking work to harvest one of the necessities of life are underpaid, underinsured, under-protected and under-respected while the Chicago commodity brokers – where the white collar gamblers sit in air-conditioned spaces and speculate on futures in foodstuffs’ prices – are quite well off, to put it modestly.

It probably won’t surprise you that the grapes, peaches, watermelons, strawberries, apricots and lettuce that you’re eating this week are brought to you from the fields by the descendants of the early migrant workers. Their plight is not that much better, except for the very few working under a real union contract.

Start with the exclusion of farmworkers from the Fair Labor Standards Act. Then go to the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS), which is aimed at protecting farmworkers and their families from pesticides but is outdated, weak and poorly enforced.

Continue on to the unyielding local power of growers and their campaign-cash indentured local, state and Congressional lawmakers. The recent shocking description of the tomato workers in central Florida in Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, shows how close defenseless migrant workers can come to involuntary servitude.

In a recent television interview, featuring Baldemar Velasquez – a vigorous farm worker organizer – Bill Moyers summarized the period since Harvest of Shame: “Believe it or not, more than fifty years later, the life of a migrant laborer is still an ordeal. And not just for adults. Perhaps as many as half a million children, some as young as seven years old, are out in the fields and orchards working nine to ten hour days under brutal conditions.” (See the full interview here.)

Among the conditions Moyers was referring to are the daily exposures to pesticides, fertilizers and the resulting chemical-related injuries and sicknesses. Far more of these pesticides end up in the workers’ bodies than are found in our food. President of Farmworker Justice, Bruce Goldstein writes: “Short-term effects include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, blindness, nausea, dizziness, headache, coma and even death. Pesticides also cause infertility, neurological disorders and cancer.”

In a recent letter appeal by the United Farm Workers (UFW), the beleaguered small union representing farmworkers, these ailments were connected to real workers by name. Focusing on the large grape grower – Giumarra Vineyeards of California – the UFW describes one tragedy of many: “After ten hours laboring under a blazing July sun, 53-year-old Giumarra grape picker Asuncion Valdivia became weak, dizzy and nauseated. He couldn’t talk. He lay down in the field. The temperature was 102 degrees.

Asuncion’s 21-year-old son, Luis, and another worker rushed to his aid. Someone called 911. But a Giumarra foreman cancelled the paramedics. He told Luis to drive his father home. They reached the emergency room in Bakersfield too late. Asuncion died on the car seat next to his son.”

For backbreaking work, kneeling 48 hours a week on crippled joints, 29-year-old Alejandro Ruiz and other farmworkers are not making much to live on. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour does not apply to farmworkers. Workers without documents are often paid less than those with documents. In most cases, they are too frightened to consider objecting.

It is so deplorable how little the members of Congress from these farm Districts have done to improve the plight of migrant farm workers. Members of Congress could be raising the visibility of deplorable working conditions faced by farmworkers and allying themselves with urban district Representatives concerned about food safety. This partnership could raise awareness of the safety of the food supply, the careless use of agricultural chemicals, and press the EPA to issue a strong WPS that emphasizes training, disclosure of chemical usage, safety precautions prior to spraying and buffer zones.

Is there a more compelling case for union organizing than the farm workers who sweat for agri-business? Federal labor laws need to be amended to improve national standards for farmworkers and eliminate existing state fair wage and health barriers. California has the strongest law, passed under the first gubernatorial term of Jerry Brown in 1975. Even this law needs to be strengthened to overcome the ways it has been gamed by agri-business interests.

Next time you eat fruits or vegetables, pause a moment to imagine what the workers who harvested them had to endure and talk up their plight with your friends and co-workers. Remember, every reform starts with human conversations and awareness. (For more information see the United Farm Workers of America and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.)

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer, and author. His latest book is The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future. Other recent books include, The Seventeen Traditions: Lessons from an American Childhood, Getting Steamed to Overcome Corporatism: Build It Together to Win, and “Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us” (a novel).

Can Healthy Food Eaters Stomach the Uncomfortable Truth About Quinoa? January 19, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Bolivia, Food, Latin America, Peru.
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Roger’s note: this article illustrates clearly the notions of “use value” versus “exchange value.”  These are categories used by Karl Marx to explain how under capitalism what gets produced depends upon its capacity to generate surplus value (profit) for the owners of capital.  Third world countries wallow in poverty while giant agribusiness use the land to produce single crops (monoculture) for exportation.  In a word, capitalist economic relations are incompatible with human needs and values.
The Guardian / By Joanna Blythman

The people who first cultivated the grain can’t afford to eat it.
January 18, 2013  |
 Not long ago, quinoa was just an obscure Peruvian grain you could only buy in wholefood shops. We struggled to pronounce it (it’s keen-wa, not qui-no-a), yet it was feted by food lovers as a novel addition to the familiar ranks of couscous and rice. Dieticians clucked over quinoa approvingly because it ticked the low-fat box and fit in with government healthy eating advice to “base your meals on starchy foods”.

Adventurous eaters liked its slightly bitter taste and the little white curls that formed around the grains. Vegans embraced quinoa as a credibly nutritious substitute for meat. Unusual among grains, quinoa has a high protein content (between 14%-18%), and it contains all those pesky, yet essential, amino acids needed for good health that can prove so elusive to vegetarians who prefer not to pop food supplements.

Sales took off. Quinoa was, in marketing speak, the “miracle grain of the Andes”, a healthy, right-on, ethical addition to the meat avoider’s larder (no dead animals, just a crop that doesn’t feel pain). Consequently, the price shot up – it has tripled since 2006 – with more rarified black, red and “royal” types commanding particularly handsome premiums.

But there is an unpalatable truth to face for those of us with a bag of quinoa in the larder. The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Outside the cities, and fuelled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture.

In fact, the quinoa trade is yet another troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange, with well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here unwittingly driving poverty there. It’s beginning to look like a cautionary tale of how a focus on exporting premium foods can damage the producer country’s food security. Feeding our apparently insatiable 365-day-a-year hunger for this luxury vegetable, Peru has also cornered the world market in asparagus. Result? In the arid Ica region where Peruvian asparagus production is concentrated, this thirsty export vegetable has depleted the water resources on which local people depend. NGOs report that asparagus labourers toil in sub-standard conditions and cannot afford to feed their children while fat cat exporters and foreign supermarkets cream off the profits. That’s the pedigree of all those bunches of pricy spears on supermarket shelves.

Soya, a foodstuff beloved of the vegan lobby as an alternative to dairy products, is another problematic import, one that drives environmental destruction [see footnote]. Embarrassingly, for those who portray it as a progressive alternative to planet-destroying meat, soya production is now one of the two main causes of deforestation in South America, along with cattle ranching, where vast expanses of forest and grassland have been felled to make way for huge plantations.

Three years ago, the pioneering Fife Diet, Europe’s biggest local food-eating project, sowed an experimental crop of quinoa. It failed, and the experiment has not been repeated. But the attempt at least recognised the need to strengthen our own food security by lessening our reliance on imported foods, and looking first and foremost to what can be grown, or reared, on our doorstep.

In this respect, omnivores have it easy. Britain excels in producing meat and dairy foods for them to enjoy. However, a rummage through the shopping baskets of vegetarians and vegans swiftly clocks up the food miles, a consequence of their higher dependency on products imported from faraway places. From tofu and tamari to carob and chickpeas, the axis of the vegetarian shopping list is heavily skewed to global.

There are promising initiatives: one enterprising Norfolk company, for instance, has just started marketing UK-grown fava beans (the sort used to make falafel) as a protein-rich alternative to meat. But in the case of quinoa, there’s a ghastly irony when the Andean peasant’s staple grain becomes too expensive at home because it has acquired hero product status among affluent foreigners preoccupied with personal health, animal welfare and reducing their carbon “foodprint”. Viewed through a lens of food security, our current enthusiasm for quinoa looks increasingly misplaced.

• This footnote was appended on 17 January 2013. To clarify: while soya is found in a variety of health products, the majority of production – 97% according to the UN report of 2006 – is used for animal feed.

Gov. Brown denies farm workers the tools to protect themselves from heat-related death October 1, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Labor.
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On Sunday, Gov. Jerry Brown rejected The Humane Treatment for Farm Workers Act – authored by Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Whittier) – that would make it a misdemeanor crime, punishable by jail time and fines, to not provide appropriate water or shade to workers laboring under high heat conditions. The governor also vetoed AB 2346 – The Farm Worker Safety Act – by Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (D-Los Angeles). It would have allowed workers to enforce the state’s heat regulations by suing employers who repeatedly violate the law. The United Farm Workers strongly supported both bills. UFW President Arturo Rodriguez issued the following statement:
“The UFW is appalled at the governor’s decision to deny farm workers the basic legal tools to protect themselves from employers who intentionally put their lives at risk by refusing to provide them with adequate water and shade despite the dangerously high temperatures. By vetoing AB 2676, the governor continues the policy of giving animals more protections than those currently offered to farm workers.
Since California issued regulations in 2005 to keep farm workers from dying of extreme heat, preventable farm worker deaths have continued. State regulators are investigating two possible heat-related farm worker deaths that occurred this summer. There are over 81,500 farms and more than 450,000 farm workers working under a corrupt farm labor contractor system. It’s time the government admits that without adequate enforcement, regulations are ineffective. We are weighing our legal and other options to determine how we better provide the protections farm workers deserve as human beings.”

Why Are People Dying to Bring You Dinner? The Shocking Facts About Our Food System March 31, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Labor.
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            We hear of the sweatshops behind our computers, sneakers and other attire–yet the exploitation of farmworkers has become normalized.

March 30, 2012  |
Cesar Chavez, the champion of farmworkers’ rights who gets his annual day of state recognition this Saturday, must be rolling in his grave. It’s been 37 years since Governor Jerry Brown, in an earlier life, signed the landmark agricultural labor relations act–and soon California legislators will debate whether to enforce rules to provide water and shade to the 400,000 farmworkers who harvest our food.

According to Assemblymember Betsy Butler, D-Los Angeles, author of the Farmworker Safety Act of 2012, “At least 16 farm workers have died since the state issued emergency regulations related to heat illness in 2005. Since all of the deaths were preventable, it’s clear that the regulations and their enforcement are ineffective.”

Let’s replay that: every year farmworkers are dying from thirst and heat exposure due to inadequate water and shade.

In announcing AB 2346, Butler added: “It is absolutely abhorrent to think that in this day and age, farm workers are not regularly provided with shade and water. These two commodities are essentially free and we all know that no grower would let their crops go without water.”

To rally support, the United Farm Workers union and other advocates will gather in Sacramento this weekend and laborers will speak of toiling thirsty and overheated in the fields.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but history shows a long, sorry resistance to treating farmworkers with even the most basic dignities. In July 2010, Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill to give farmworkers overtime pay after eight hours a day or 40 hours a week (New York passed such a bill in 2009). This February, after lobbying from Kraft Foods, the American Meat Institute and others, the USDA withdrew a proposed rule requiring companies doing business with the agency to prove that their subcontractors–including growers–are complying with labor laws.

Can you imagine any other profession where such injustices would be allowed? We hear of the sweatshops behind our computers, sneakers and other attire–yet the exploitation of farmworkers has become normalized. Somehow food, so intrinsic to our daily lives, escapes the kind of justice we should take for granted in 2012.

Our ongoing “harvest of shame” is about more than water and shade. It is about toxic pesticide exposures that send farmworkers to the hospital–up to 20,000 are poisoned annually according to the Centers for Disease Control. It is about rock-bottom wages for back-breaking work: more than 60 percent of farmworkers live south of the poverty line. “Hired farmworkers continue to be one of the most economically disadvantaged groups in the United States,” the USDA says, noting, “they are sometimes forced to sleep in their vehicles, in tents, or completely outdoors.”

Farmworkers receive just half the average hourly wage of other private-sector workers, yet their pay represents up to 40 percent of food production costs for “crops such as fruits, vegetables, and nursery products,” according to the USDA.

The dirty big secret of our food is that highly exploited labor is a major cost (particularly in organic farming), and even well-meaning growers fight to keep their costs down. If food prices get too high, consumers howl for price relief. Something has to give.

This Cesar Chavez Day, let’s renew a national conversation about justice and fairness for America’s roughly one million farmworkers. Here’s a start: in the 2012 Farm Bill coming before Congress this summer, let’s create an income and health support fund for farmworkers–and a Farmworkers’ Bill of Rights. Currently, taxpayers subsidize agribusiness to the tune of roughly $15 billion a year–most of it benefiting large-scale production of additives for fast food and fuels that deplete our health and the environment. Let’s redirect some of that money to prevent severe farmworker poverty, chronic disease and premature deaths.

Why spend taxpayer dollars to make sure farmworkers get basic justice? We’re already paying the bill every day for uninsured farm laborers who end up in emergency rooms due to acute and chronic pesticide exposures or heat exhaustion; and we’re already paying the bill for impoverished underpaid farmworkers who need welfare and other supports just to survive. We can pay now to prevent farmworker suffering, or pay later for the inevitable health and economic emergencies.

Farmworkers are often undocumented and vulnerable–but not powerless. They’ve won some impressive battles recently, with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers extracting better pay from Taco Bell and Trader Joe’s. Like Cesar Chavez’ great boycotts of the early 1970s, these campaigns organized farmworkers and consumers in common cause.

It’s time for consumers and policymakers to demand an end to the sweatshops hiding behind our dinner plates. It’s not just one company or a few bad apple growers–it’s our whole economy and policy of “cheap food,” which has cost many farmworkers an arm and a leg.

Christopher D. Cook is the author of “Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis” (New Press). He has also written for Harper’s, the Economist, the Los Angeles Times and the Christian Science Monitor. His Web site is www.christopherdcook.com.

Blood in the Amazon: Brazilian Activists Murdered as Deforestation Increases June 1, 2011

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Roger’s note: this article demonstrates the inadequacy of electing self-proclaimed left wing governments.  Once in power, Brazil’s Lula, and now his successor Dilma Rousseff come under tremendous pressures to advance “economic growth.”  Unfortunately such pressures a rarely resisted since counter pressures do not compare in strength to the massive media and corporate campaigns to promote such growth.  In the end, these governments, despite their campaign promises, end up with the same Neo-Liberal economic strategies as their right wing predecessors.  This is not to say that the election of such “leftist” governments in Latin America (Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Nicaragua, etc.) is insignificant.  It represents popular pressures from below to resist the reach of the US imperial tendrils.  But the election of such governments is not enough, it is only a first step toward a genuine liberation from the imperialist and capitalist destruction of the social and natural environments.  In  the case of the article below, we are talking about the Amazon Rainforest, the very lungs of the world.

 

Published on Wednesday, June 1, 2011 by CommonDreams.org

  by  Benjamin Dangl

Early in the morning on May 24, in the northern Brazilian Amazon, José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva got onto a motorcycle near the nature reserve they had worked on for over two decades. As the couple rode past the jungle they dedicated their lives to protecting, gunmen hiding near a bridge opened fire, killing them both.

Brazilian law enforcement officials said that the killing appeared to be the work of hired gunmen, due to the fact that an ear was cut off each of the victims. This is often done to prove to whoever paid for the killings that the job was carried out.

The murder took place the same day the Brazilian Congress passed a change to the forestry code that would allow agribusinesses and ranchers to clear even more land in the Amazon jungle. Deforestation rose 27 percent from August 2010 to April 2011 largely due to soybean plantations. The levels will likely rise if the changes to the forestry code are passed by the Senate.

Ribeiro knew he was in danger of being killed for his struggle against loggers, ranchers and large scale farmers who were deforesting the Amazon. In fact, just six months earlier, in November 2010 at an environmental conference in Manaus, Brazil, he told the audience “I could be here today talking to you and in one month you will get the news that I disappeared. I will protect the forest at all costs. That is why I could get a bullet in my head at any moment. … As long as I have the strength to walk I will denounce all of those who damage the forest.”

The life and death of Ribeiro has been rightly compared to that of Chico Mendes, a Brazilian rubber tapper, union leader and environmentalist who fought against logging and ranching, winning international attention for his successful campaigns against deforestation. In 1988, Mendes was murdered by gunmen hired by ranchers.

Just two weeks before he was killed, Mendes also spoke hauntingly about the likelihood that he would be murdered for his activism. “I don’t want flowers, because I know you are going to pull them up from the forest. The only thing I want is that my death helps to stop the murderers’ impunity…”

Yet since the murder of Mendes, impunity in the Brazilian countryside has become the norm. In the past 20 years, over 1,150 rural activists have been killed in conflicts related to land. Of these murders, less than 100 cases have gone to court, only 80 of the killers have been convicted, and just 15 of the people who hired the gunmen were found guilty, according to Catholic Land Pastoral, a group monitoring land conflicts. Impunity reigns in rural areas due to the corruption of judicial officials and police, and the wealth and power of the ranchers, farmers and loggers who are often the ones who order the killings.

The recent murder of Ribeiro and Santo combined with the danger posed by changes to the forestry code are devastating indications of the direction Brazil is heading in the Amazon. For some, the expansion of logging, ranching and soybean operations into the Amazon are inevitable steps toward economic progress. But for others, a different kind of progress is necessary if the planet is to survive. As Chico Mendes explained just days before his death in 1988, he wanted to “demonstrate that progress without destruction is possible.”

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Benjamin Dangl

Benjamin Dangl has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America and is the author of the new book, Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press). For more information, visit DancingwithDynamite.com. Email Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com

Agriculture Nominee Vilsack Splits the Organic Community January 15, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Environment.
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Environmental News Service, http://www.ens-newswire.com/

WASHINGTON, DC, January 14, 2009 (ENS) – Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack had no problem winning over both Democrat and Republican members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee during his confirmation hearing today, but he has not done as well with the growers and consumers of organic foods.

 

A trial lawyer and two-term Iowa governor from 1999 to 2007, Vilsack owns a 590-acre Iowa farm, about half of which is planted to crops. He told the committee he supports federal programs that assist organic agriculture, but he has not managed to persuade the consumers of organic foods that he can be trusted to safeguard their interests.

In the past, Vilsack has supported the genetic engineering of crops, which is viewed as a threat by organic farmers who cannot get organic certification for their produce if it is contaminated by pollen drift from transgenic crops. Official policy of the Agriclutre Department is that genetically engineered crops need not be regulated or labeled.

Some in the organic community also see Vilsack as a friend of corporate agribusiness interests, and they have mounted a petition drive to express their opposition to his nomination.

The Organic Consumers Association says it is “disappointed in this controversial appointment” of Vilsack and has gathered over 100,000 emails and petition signatures from organic consumers and farmers objecting to the appointment of the man they call a “biotech and biofuels booster.”

This association has been drumming up support for a request to President-elect Barack Obama to “move beyond agribusiness as usual” by drafting Jim Riddle to head the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, the department that oversees organic food, farming, and standards.

Riddle is an organic farmer from Minnesota, former chair of the National Organic Standards Board, and a longtime advocate for sustainable and organic farming.

“With Riddle heading up the AMS, farmers markets, community supported agriculture, transition to organic programs, and the National Organic Program will finally receive the attention, technical assistance, and funding they deserve,” said the Organic Consumers Association in a statement.

In response, a group of the organic industry’s corporate executives has launched its own petition drive in support of Vilsack.

Officers of some of the largest corporate entities like Whole Foods, Stonyfield and United Natural Foods Inc., have signed on in support. Their petition, with about 500 signatories, includes many Iowa residents familiar with Vilsack when he was governor.

In a letter to the Obama transition team, The Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group for family farmers, described the USDA’s National Organic Program, NOP, as “dysfunctional” and asked for the Obama administration to make its rehabilitation a priority.

The letter described the NOPs long-standing adversarial relationship with the majority of organic farmers and consumers and the groups that represent them. It said, “Senior management, with oversight of the NOP, has treated industry stakeholders arrogantly and disrespectfully and has overridden NOP career staff when their findings might have been unfavorable to corporations with interests in the organic industry.”

“We were and still are optimistic that when Mr. Obama talked about ‘change’ during his campaign, that he included a shift away from corporate agribusiness domination at the USDA,” said Mark Kastel, a farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute.

Organic farmers and consumers have many environmental concerns, among them genetic crop engineering, pest control, clean and sufficient water supplies, hormones in milk, manure management, the decline of pollinators such as honeybees, labeling of organic products, land use for biofuels, and a warming climate.

In his introductory remarks, committee chairman Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa raised the issue of organic foods, pointing out that “the demand for locally-grown and organic foods continues to grow – the fastest growing part of the food chain – providing new and expanding opportunities in rural communities.”

Vilsack told the committee that if he becomes the next U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, he will promote renewable energy as a way to boost the rural economy.

The nominee mentioned “global climate change,” a reduction in U.S. forest lands and the health care crisis as issues he intends to tackle.

“All of these serious challenges require a compelling new vision for the department, with the attention, dedication and leadership to make it happen,” Vilsack said. “The president-elect has called on each of us to meet these challenges.”

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, predicted Vilsack’s confirmation would be “swift and speedy.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.

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