An estimated 1.6 million people labour in the fields of the United States.
Most of them were born outside the United States. Many of them are undocumented immigrants. Educational opportunities for them have been limited. The vast majority of crops grown in the United States are harvested by people who lack a realistic chance of achieving “the American dream” of which we are all so fond. In fact, it is abuse of these very people which allows other people to get their little slice of the dream, the slice with the big house and the multiple business holdings and the private schools, the slice with the access to health care, a college education for their children. Agriculture in the United States is a system in which a handful of people stand on the backs of others in the name of profit, and it is widely tolerated despite the fact that this seems to go against the very grain of supposedly American values.
The labour is grueling. I’ve done some farmwork. It is not enjoyable. My father worked on farms a lot when he was a kid, and he has some hair raising stories about it. There’s a reason that labourers try to get out of farmwork as quickly as possible, setting up a revolving door; there’s a constant demand for new farmworkers and that makes it difficult to track them. It makes it difficult for them to connect with each other. It makes it difficult for them to organize.
The agriculture industry makes it hard to get out. Farmworkers have their documentation taken away, and are told that they can get it back at some unspecified point in the future. They are told that if they leave, they will be reported to immigration authorities. They are kept in isolation so that they cannot interact with people who might have information about opportunities elsewhere.
And when they get sick, when they are injured, they are dumped and replaced. There’s no reason to provide care or support, because someone else wants that job and is willing to take it. There’s no reason to wait and give a farmworker a few days off when others are clamoring for that spot, for the privilege of working 12 or 14 hour days in high heat. The rain. Snow. Frost. Ice.
Farmworkers are, quite literally, treated like tools. Disposable ones. There are always more available in the teeming mass of humanity which is trying to get into the United States, to get a foothold here, to carve out some chance at something better.
Companies which have fields in the United States have gone to great lengths to ensure that as few labour protections as possible are extended to farm workers. They’ve got all sorts of arguments for it, of course, but what it really boils down to is that they want to retain their source of cheap, disposable labour because they want to make more money. They sometimes claim that no people born in the United States want these jobs. Not strictly true, actually, but beside the point: Why should that be used as an argument to pay people less than minimum wage? They say that paying fair wages would drive the cost of produce up. Yes, well, that’s how capitalism works, when the costs of production rise, they are passed on to consumers. Does that mean that we should not pay people a fair wage?
And all of these arguments ignore the fact that it is fellow human beings we are talking about. These justifications focus on money and logistics, and they do not address the very real problems involved in using, abusing, and discarding people.
Produce has hidden costs. Produce in the United States may be kept relatively cheap (although prices are rising at the moment), but it’s more than the cost out of your pocket. There’s a cost in human lives that goes with it; the lettuce I used in my salad yesterday was probably cut by someone working for less than minimum wage. Someone who works overtime, every day, and receives no compensation. Someone with a back which is aching from bending and straightening with a lettuce knife. With fingers which are scarred and gnarled from work. Someone who may have been underage. Someone who might have been sick, but too frightened not to come to work.
There wasn’t any other lettuce I could buy. All the lettuce in the store comes with that hidden cost.
Reform isn’t about buying the better thing, because there are no better alternatives. It’s about looking at the way agriculture in the United States works, and asking ourselves if we are willing to live with it. Are we? Are we comfortable with this?
Are we comfortable with the fact that farmworkers are kept ignorant of their rights? That they are intimidated into remaining on farms where they don’t want to be with threats of deportation and other legal problems? That they are rarely offered assistance or aid, even in disasters, because they are deemed undeserving? That documented immigrants with the paper trail which says they are entitled to be here are deported by accident? With the fact that farmworkers and their children are denied healthcare and education? With the fact that the agriculture industry apparently sees nothing wrong with treating people like machines?
All this for a cheap head of lettuce. Is it worth it?