Today’s post is inspired by my mounting excitement over the final stages of funding and post-production on a new food documentary that I can’t wait to see: Sanjay Rawal’s FOOD CHAIN, which explores the state of labor within the agriculture sector in the US and the immoral practices that affect the lives of countless thousands of farm workers.
Check out the trailer.
Yes, actual — not sort-of – slavery.
You can find more information on supporting the documentary, which has met its initial Kickstarter goal, but has a secondary goal to fully fund the film’s graphics, here.
I’ve summarized some of the labor rights issues in the agricultural industry here before, but thought it was worth revisiting, to put faces, and some specific numbers, to the abstraction that is so often associated with the hands who pick our food — even the food we buy at Whole Foods, or Trader Joes.
According to the California Institute for Rural Studies, the typical farmworker in the U.S. is a young man who has left his family to work in the field. He ususally spends between 12 and 14 hours a day in the field, six days a week, and made between $7,000-10,000 a year for an individual, or up to $13,000 a year for a family. The farmworker has no health insurance. No sick days, no vacation days, and certainly no union. More than 50% have never been to a dentist—about 1/3 have never seen a doctor. Typically, farms provide housing for their workers during the growing and harvesting season, to maximize the picking hours in a day. Workers can expect to pay about $50 a week to live in run-down shacks or trailers, sometimes with as many as 15 other people.
All this, all this our farm workers get in exchange for picking the food we need, for working the third most dangerous job in the country. The odds of dying on the farm are 39 out of 100,000. Farmworkers suffer the highest rate of toxic chemical injuries and skin disorders of any workers in the country, and are more than 25% more likely than the average American to develop asthma, birth defects, tuberculosis and cancer. Children of migrant farm workers have higher rates of pesticide exposure, dental disease and malnutrition.
Because, oh yes, the agricultural industry is exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s child labor regulations. In every other industry, the minimum age to work legally in this country is 16. On the farm, it’s 12.
So why would anyone want to do farm work—if it’s so back-breaking, hot, exhausting, dangerous and underpaid, why would you sign up for it? Because you don’t have any other option, of course. It’s probably not a surprise that the vast majority of California’s farmworkers—and, in fact, a majority of farmworkers across the country—are undocumented immigrants. Close to 90% of farmworkers in the U.S. are Spanish-speaking, and most of those born in Mexico. Over 50% of immigrant farmworkers nationwide are not protected by legal documents, and so, in this country, they have no legal rights. This lack of documentation contributes, along with a tight bottom line and a slim margin of economic error on the farm, to the horrible working conditions of the modern American farm.
When sociologists discuss patterns of migration, they have two terms to explain what makes a person move from one place to the next—they call them push factors and pull factors. The pull factors for farm work in the United States are that agriculture is a dangerous industry. Because the jobs are so life-threatening, and the pay is so low, the agriculture industry would either have to raise pay and improve conditions—or recruit workers from abroad, where there are more laborers, fewer jobs and much, much lower wages. The U.S. agriculture industry is primarily located in California, where a cheap and willing supply of labor is close at hand. Why provide healthcare and housing when you can just import undocumented immigrants instead?
The push factors are the things that make a person’s home country worth leaving behind. Let’s put it this way: the push factors are the things that make working 80 hour weeks hunched over in a field under the blazing sun for seven grand a year look like the American Dream come true.
Before you begin to think that the solution here is to close the borders and take those jobs back, I should make it clear that this is a pretty good deal for the U.S. too. Paying migrant farm workers next to nothing and having a constant stream of people willing to work cheap is what keeps us all in fresh produce, all year round, for pennies. It’s the reason why I can walk into a grocery store in the middle of February and buy a head of romaine for 99 cents. And if the cheap food itself weren’t benefit enough, the U.S. Social Security Administration has recently estimated that three out of every four undocumented immigrants pay payroll taxes (in addition to paying the same sales and consumer taxes the rest of us pay), and that undocumented workers contribute six to seven billion dollars in Social Security funds that they are not eligible to claim.
Plus, show me the pools of American citizens out there just dying for a job picking lettuce in Oxnard.
Next time you consider all the standards to which you currently hold your food, or next time you wonder whether your standards aren’t unreasonably high, take a moment to remember the very real human face of that food. The price tag might look a little different.