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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.
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