In a Global Food System: Breaking Down Barriers and Improving Livelihoods for Food Workers

By Ronit Ridberg

This is the third in a series of blogs Nourishing the Planet will be writing about workers in the food system. In the second part of this two-part interview conducted by Nourishing the Planet research intern Ronit Ridberg, National VP of the United Farm Workers of America Erik Nicholson describes the complex ways labor and immigration policies affect the lives of farm workers.

"We’ve got to get to a point where at a minimum, those working in the fields need to earn a fair wage, get fair benefits, and have improved working conditions," says Nicholson. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

What are some of the biggest challenges facing farm workers?

Two of the biggest issues are a lack of legal status and lack of economic viability. And so you have hundreds of thousands of people that we depend on, that have no vehicle currently to obtain legal status. And they’re literally dying to be able to be here legally, but we’ve offered them no way to do it.

We find labor is still one of the few costs that growers consider to be a flexible cost, rather than a fixed cost. There’s not a lot of space in terms of negotiating what you’re going to pay for diesel fuel, or what the newest and greatest pesticides are going to cost, but there’s a constant search for the cheapest labor. And as a result we continue to see, from our perspective, widespread violations of workers’ rights in the fields. So things like 15 workers literally dropping dead in the fields in California, just under the administration of our current governor, due to farmers’ failure to provide a shaded rest area and adequate drinking water. On top of that, and depending on who’s statistics you’re looking at, you add that agriculture has  a 4-7 times higher injury and fatality rate than non-agricultural industries, and you get a sense of just how bad it is out there.

We’re not unsympathetic to the economic pressures that US producers are facing. But unfortunately the way that the response has been is for farm workers literally to subsidize the cost of our cheap food with their lives, with their family’s well-being, and make this industry a profoundly unsustainable one. Documented or undocumented, the average wage in agriculture is somewhere between $15,000-18,000 a year. That’s just not economically sustainable. So we’ve got to figure out a way that the folks that pick our food can have a true livelihood.

The other issue that I guess we shouldn’t beat around the bush is, is race. It’s not a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of people that work in the fields are people of color. I would put out that if we had a majority of Anglos out there, there would be an absolute outrage if 15 people dropped dead in the fields in California due to heat stress. But there’s barely a sound made. So I think we’ve got some serious obstacles in terms of making sure that literally everybody is at the table in this conversation. We need to raise those sensibilities and the awareness that workers have an important voice – that is the foundation on which any kind of true sustainability in our food production has to be based.

What kinds of changes would you like to see in agricultural, labor, or immigration policies?

First of all, we need to break down the national barriers, and recognize that it is a global system, regardless of what we think about it. That is just a reality – people are in boats right now, crossing to the Canary Islands, they’re in boats right now, crossing to the Dominican Republic and Haiti to Puerto Rico, and crossing the desert as we speak. And so the first thing we need to figure out is how to support those people who, due to primarily economic desperation, are searching for better lives for their families, and minimize the deaths, the debt peonage, the trafficking that’s occurring.

We have got to start talking to each other across boundaries. Respect the national differences and the work, and how we do it, but understand for us and Mexico, we’re tied at the hip. And so it’s incumbent upon us to care about a small Mexican producer who’s scrounging up $5000 to pay a recruiter so he can get a H2A guest worker visa, and then he shows up here and is subjected to slave-like conditions. That reality is bi-national, and our work needs to reflect that. So I think that’s the first challenge.

The second challenge is to recognize that we have global opportunities as a result of this global system. We could work collaboratively to hold multinational companies accountable and raise the standards for workers and producers in all those countries. Same goes for supermarket chains: There are very few supermarket chains that are only active now in one country. Increasingly, they’re active in a multitude of countries. That’s an opportunity for us to approach those chains and say hey, it’s not okay for you to be sourcing products from workers who are mistreated or held in debt peonage or worse. And to collaborate across borders to hold those supermarket chains accountable.

And then I think the third component is we’ve got to figure out a way to support these producers so their livelihoods can be sustainable. And that the workers they employ, regardless of the country, also have a sustainable future. Because at the end of the day, we need people to work the fields. And our perspective is it’s a very dignified job and one of the most important jobs out there because absent those folks, we don’t eat. But we’ve got to get to a point where at a minimum, those working in the fields need to earn a fair wage, get fair benefits, and have improved working condition. That’s a responsibility that we all bear throughout the supply chain from consumers to retailers to farmers, all the way through. If we were to boil it down to economics and immigration, and be able to make changes there, that would revolutionize the industry.

To learn more about innovations in fighting for farm workers’ rights and livelihoods, and how consumers can get involved, see Giving Farm Workers a VoiceNew Frontier Farmers and Processor Group: Reviving Farmland and Improving Livelihoods, Making Sure the Food Industry Works for its Employees and Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group: Shayna Bailey

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

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