Farmworkers lack legal protections, rights that other sectors take for granted
Palo Alto, CA (March 31, 2011)—More and more Americans are asking questions about where their food comes from, but few are going so far as to think about who picked it. Farmworkers remain in the shadows. A groundbreaking new report released today, César Chávez Day, in honor of the labor leader who fought tirelessly for farmworker rights, 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 of the Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation and United Farm Workers (UFW), with support from Oxfam America. By compiling and analyzing data from multiple federal, state, and private sources, it renders the most comprehensive picture yet of the reality faced by America’s least-valued yet critically important workforce.
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.
In summary, the U.S. food supply depends on the labor of a socially and economically marginalized population working in often appalling, sometimes abusive conditions.
Bon Appétit Management Company, known for its pioneering efforts toward more sustainable food sourcing, has long wanted to add farmworker welfare to its list of core values. “But when we began questioning our suppliers about the human element in how the food was produced, we discovered they knew very little about the people who actually harvested it,” said Maisie Greenawalt, vice president of strategy, Bon Appétit Management Company. “They thought that the lack of data about violations or abuses meant that there was no problem. Our partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida had opened our eyes that this was not the case. We helped develop this report as a first step toward being able to direct our purchasing power to operations that treat their agricultural employees with certifiable dignity and fairness.”
The UFW, the largest and oldest farmworkers union in the United States, hopes that through the Inventory it can motivate consumers to help bring justice to the millions of workers who toil in our fields. By exercising the substantial power they wield over the stores and restaurants they patronize, consumers can compel agricultural employers to treat farmworkers with the dignity and respect we demand of one another every day.
Bon Appétit and United Farm Workers would like to see the data compiled by the report lead to the development of verifiable and enforceable standards for farm work that can be supported by both individual consumers and socially responsible corporations.
“Thirty-nine years ago, César Chávez coined the phrase ‘Si se puede!‘ [‘Yes, we can!’] — a reminder that each of us is the keeper of César’s legacy,” said UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez. “The greatest monument to César Chávez 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 cannot continue to rely on an invisible underclass of exploited laborers. Until we acknowledge this and take steps to grant farmworkers the same legal protections in the workplace as those in other U.S. occupations, we will never have a food system that is truly sustainable, fair, and healthy for all.
About Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation
Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation‘s mission is to educate consumers and institutional purchasers about how their food choices affect the global environment and local economies — now and for future generations — and to motivate them to make change. It is the operating foundation of Bon Appétit Management Company, a socially responsible on-site restaurant company offering full food-service management to corporations, universities, and specialty venues including eBay, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Getty Center. Based in Palo Alto, CA, Bon Appétit operates more than 400 cafés in 31 states. The company has pioneered environmentally sound sourcing policies, beginning with its Farm to Fork Program in 1999, which recently passed the milestone of 1,000 family-scale suppliers. Bon Appétit has also implemented programs addressing antibiotic overuse, sustainable seafood, cage-free eggs, the connection between food and climate change, and most recently, farmworkers’ rights. The company has received numerous awards for its work from organizations including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Seafood Choices Alliance, The Humane Society of the United States, and Food Alliance.
About the United Farm Workers of America
Founded in 1962 by César Chávez, the United Farm Workers of America is the nation’s first successful and largest farmworkers union, currently active in 10 states. The union continues to organize in major agricultural industries across the nation. Recent years have seen major UFW organizing, negotiating, and legislative victories. Among them are union contracts with one of the nation’s largest employers of strawberry workers, one of the California’s largest vegetable companies, and 75 percent of California’s fresh mushroom industry. Just recently, the union renegotiated its contract protecting 370 wine-grape workers at America’s largest winery, Gallo of Sonoma. UFW contracts in the Pacific Northwest include the biggest dairy in the U.S., Washington State’s largest winery, and a huge cattle feedlot firm in Oregon and Washington. Many recent UFW-sponsored laws and regulations aid farmworkers; in California, it backed the first state regulation in the U.S. to prevent further heat deaths of farm workers. The UFW is also pushing its historic bipartisan, broadly backed AgJobs immigration reform bill. AgJobs would allow undocumented farm workers earn the right to stay permanently in this country by continuing to work in agriculture.