Americans are asking questions about where their food comes from, but few worry about who picked it. Farmworkers remain in the shadows. Today--on Cesar Chavez day--a new report shines a light into these dark corners of our nation's food system.
The Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States is the product of a unique for-profit/NGO joint venture. It yields a comprehensive picture of the reality America's least-valued yet critically important workforce face.
Key issues faced by the nation's 1.4 million crop farmworkers:
· Farmworkers are exempt from most federal wage and hour standards, and even existing regulations are rarely enforced, leading to rampant wage theft and other abuses.
· Children as young as 12 are legally allowed to engage in farm work, although it is one of the most dangerous employment sectors.
· Widespread use of subcontractors leads to lack of transparency and difficulty enforcing existing laws.
· Health and safety standards are inadequate, and even those that exist are rarely enforced.
· Most farmworkers are ineligible for unemployment insurance and workers' compensation insurance that is granted to employees in other sectors.
· Farmworkers are explicitly excluded from laws that protect collective bargaining and free association.
Our U.S. food supply depends on the labor of a socially and economically marginalized population working in often appalling, sometimes abusive conditions.
The publication, timed to release on Cesar Chavez day in honor of the labor leader who fought tirelessly for farmworker rights, is a joint venture of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation with support from Oxfam America
All participants hope it will bring justice to the millions of workers who toil in our fields by leading to the development of verifiable and enforceable standards for farm work that can be supported by both individual consumers and socially responsible corporations. Consumers can make agricultural employers treat farmworkers with dignity by buying from stores and restaurants that are fair.
"Thirty-nine years ago, Cesar Chavez coined the phrase 'Si se puede!' ['Yes, we can!'] — a reminder that each of us is the keeper of Cesar's legacy," said UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez. "The greatest monument to Cesar Chavez isn't on a street sign or an official holiday. It's having the courage to work for change that he instilled in his own people and in millions of others who never worked on a farm."
America's cheap and abundant food system is the envy of the world, but it can’t continue to rely on an invisible underclass of exploited laborers. Until we acknowledge this and get farmworkers the same legal protections any other U.S. occupation enjoys, we will never have a food system that is truly sustainable, fair, and healthy for all.
And who can stomach that?
And who can stomach that?