Consumers Can Support Farmworkers Where Government Policies Cannot

By Ronit Ridberg

This is the third of three parts of an interview with Baldemar Velasquez, President and Founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. In part three, Mr. Velasquez talks about the role consumers can play in supporting farmworkers’ rights.

What kinds of changes would you like to see in agriculture, labor, or immigration policies to improve working conditions?

When you talk about policies, I assume you’re talking about governmental policies, but I think there has to be a change of thinking. I think for too long our public policy has really been one of subsidizing the agricultural industry, and marginalizing and institutionalizing the poverty of agricultural workers. For instance, many of our progressive liberal friends who push for different government programs, subsidies, even the Headstart program for instance, food stamps, the federally funded migrant clinics and so on – all of these things are really not subsidies to the farmworkers. They’re really subsidies to the agricultural industry.

"Consumers want to buy things that are not made by exploiting people, animals, or resources, so we’re trying to capitalize on that to create a win-win-win situation, to give employers and food companies an incentive to do things in a better way," says Mr. Velasquez. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Just take something simple like food stamps: why do farmworkers qualify for food stamps? Look, you’re dealing with a group of workers who are not unemployed, they’re not disabled, they’re some of the hardest working people in America. People should beg the question, why is it then that from that difficult and hard work that they do, they can’t feed, educate, and clothe their own family? Why do they have to rely on government hand outs and food stamps and migrant clinics and so on? Why can’t they, off the sweat off their back, be able to provide food, shelter, and health care for their own families?

The reason is because we have an agricultural system that is dysfunctional, that is lopsided. And we favor a public policy that institutionalizes what is, instead of shifting the paradigms of the way the industry itself is structured. I’m not just talking domestically, this is global. That’s why I feel we’ve got to do something about it. It starts with having an initiative by workers themselves, and then we can have an impact in the structures of agriculture and radically change it.

What role can American food consumers play in supporting agricultural workers’ rights?

Historically, what the farmworker movement has done, going back to Cesar Chavez’s boycott of grapes, and other vegetables and fruits – we mobilize consumers around those issues. We highlight the mistreatment of workers, and consumers can play a hand in correcting it by boycotting the related products that we’re referring to.

But now there’s a growing consciousness around the country, and that’s backed up by experts in sales and marketing who study the bar-coding of purchases. More than a third of all consumers are conscientious buyers, and they are looking for healthy lifestyles, healthy environment, and good treatment of other human beings. And it’s true of the animal industry as well – the Humane Society and others are very prominent. Consumers want to buy things that are not made by exploiting people, animals, or resources, so we’re trying to capitalize on that to create a win-win-win situation, to give employers and food companies an incentive to do things in a better way.

How can consumers know how workers were treated?

Mr. Velasquez supports an idea like coffee’s Fair Trade seal to help consumers support products brought to market with fair labor standards.

We definitely need something along the lines of coffee’s Fair Trade approach, to make agricultural products produced in a similar vein. I think that will resonate with consumers and that’s the direction we would want to go.

How can Nourishing the Planet readers get involved in supporting farmworkers?

Help us with our fight with the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company. We’re organizing 20,000 tobacco cutters in five southern states who are working in intolerable conditions. You’re talking about an industry that makes billions and has not been hurt by this recession, and it is a national shame that farmworkers are still suffering the same conditions that Edward R. Murrow filmed in 1960 in that Harvest of Shame.

And the way they can help is to help us go after the financial partners of that company, which is the J.P. Morgan Chase bank. We are organizing a boycott of that bank until they tell the Reynolds to sit down and talk with FLOC about the workers at the bottom of their supply chain. And we’re going to trigger that boycott September 7th, the day after Labor Day, and we’re recruiting pledges of people if they have accounts or they know people who have accounts: churches, unions, community organizations, with Chase, to pledge to withdraw those and do business with another bank. And send the rich bankers of Reynolds American the message that if you’re going to exploit farmworkers, you ain’t going to do it with our money.

For parts one and two of this interview, please see Fighting for Farm Workers’ Rights for More Than 40 Years , and Giving Farmworkers a Seat at the Negotiating Table.

Ronit Ridberg is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet project.

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