Considering the farmworker

ChipsOnBucketFrom my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore

Given how corporatized, mechanized and super-sized American food production has become, I wonder how many people know that the harvesting of fruits and vegetables is still done mostly by hand. It is.

Much of what you see in the produce aisle was picked by migrant farmworkers. These men, women and children live their lives on the move, going wherever the crops are, laboring out of public view to earn poverty level wages.

Many of the growers who hire farmworkers would pay better wages if they could. But they can’t. The American produce farmer is at the mercy of a handful of massive grocery chains with the power to all-but dictate prices. And further up the supply chain is, well, me. And you. Who doesn’t prefer lower prices for produce?

I’ve known a little about farmworkers since the early 1970s when my parents stopped buying lettuce until farmworkers got a raise. This was when Cesar Chavez was doing his thing, and I remember it striking a nerve, the apparent injustice of it all. It’s been in the back of my mind ever since. Now it’s back in front as I learn how little has changed in four decades.

There are just over a million farmworkers in America. Or maybe 3 million. Nobody seems sure but the lowest count I’ve seen is a million so let’s go with that. At least half are undocumented and most are foreign-born, from Mexico and Central America.

Farmworkers earn around $11,000 a year. The current poverty threshold is around $12,000. The so-called piece rate—what a farmworker earns per bucket of crops—hasn’t increased in many cases for decades. It hovers around 50 cents.

Some farmworker housing is unsafe, unclean, and unfit for human habitation. Not all migrant labor camps are like this, but one hovel off the highway is too many.

This one confounds me the most: Farmworkers are excluded from many of the laws put in place with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. That’s no typo. The president who signed it into law was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

No farmworker is entitled to overtime pay and some can be paid less than minimum wage. And there are special child labor laws for farmworkers. In every other industry the minimum age for employment is 14. Farmworking children can be as young as 12. Here in North Carolina they can work legally at age 10.

Farmworkers are subject to work hazards you won’t find elsewhere. Green Tobacco Sickness is one of the worst, in which rubbing against wet tobacco leaves for a day can put as much nicotine into your system as smoking multiple packs of cigarettes. Heat stress is a killer. And God only knows the long-term effect of pesticides farmworkers are exposed to.

And of course, as most farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, they suffer the same indignities as their peers in any industry: Fear of deportation, paying taxes they’ll never benefit from, and so on.

I have much more to learn. I don’t know how widespread these conditions are, nor all the reasons why farm labor conditions are so different from every other trade in America. But I intend to find out.

A million workers in the United States, subject to different laws, living and working in unsafe conditions.

That’s a lot to consider.

Clothes drying next to a harvesting bucket at a migrant farmworker camp in North Carolina. Above: Plastic chips collected harvesting sweet peppers, one per bucket, each worth 42 cents, wait to be tallied at the end of a farmworker’s day.

Text and photos by Michael Durbin