Does Your Version of Food Miles Include Worker Miles?

Food miles have been a hot concept in food politics for quite a while, focusing on the idea that people need to think about how far their food travels to reach them and what kinds of environmental costs come along with it. Generally, the fewer miles, the better, because that means fewer resources expended on food production, and less waste. If something travels 3,000 miles, it’s going to have a much larger environmental impact than something that travels 300, or 30, or three. Getting food miles down, thus, is a big foodie accomplishment, and many foodies like to boast of eating a 100-mile (150-mile, 200-mile) diet.

Yet, this only looks at one aspect of food production. Environmental issues surrounding food production should definitely be considered when making decisions about what to eat and where to source it, but labour issues should be considered right alongside them. Thus, it’s also important to think about what I’m crudely terming ‘worker miles’ to create a shorthand for the labour that goes into food production, and how workers are treated in the course of growing, harvesting, preparing, and transporting food. Because low food miles does not necessarily mean low labour miles, and you can’t offset worker abuse by planting some trees somewhere.

Locally-produced food offers a lot of advantages. It tends to come from smaller farms, which makes it a lot easier to audit farming practices and confirm that food is produced in a way you genuinely believe is ethical. This includes looking at a farm to find out more about how it treats its workers. Are they paid fairly for their labour? If worker housing is provided, is it habitable, safe, and clean? Are workers provided with adequate breaks, access to shade, and fresh water? What kind of working hours do they have during harvest season? Does their employer offer benefits like a school for farmworkers (if it’s a large farm), health care, and sponsorship for immigrants working their way to becoming legal citizens or permanent residents?

These are the kinds of questions that go into worker miles. The further your food is from you, the harder it’s going to be to answer them. If you’re eating lettuce produced in Central California and you live in Oregon, it’s difficult to actually go into the field and talk with workers to hold their employers accountable. And at that point you haven’t talked to the people who package and prepare the lettuce in packaging plants, the truck drivers who haul it, the grocery store employers who work in shipping and the produce section getting it unloaded and on the shelf.

At all or any of these stages, workers could be abused, and without a transparent supply chain, it can be hard to ascertain which workers might be exploited. Just as many companies now are being transparent about food miles because it’s trendy to do so, it’s time to force them to be open about worker miles as well, so people can know the true cost of their food. Farmworker rights organisations and advocacy groups can highlight specific suppliers or businesses known to promote harmful practices, but they can’t offer a detailed overview of every single farm in the industry, because it’s too much work for one organisation.

For that, better oversight is required, and that’s only going to happen if consumers demand it. Just as people are willing to pay more for fewer food miles, they should be willing to pay more for food produced in ethical working conditions, with fewer burdens on workers and less exploitation. Pretending that ethical eating stops at the environment and with the care of livestock leaves out the lives of millions of farmworkers worldwide who labour in hideous conditions to supply the West’s rapacious need for more food products, particularly the exotic and the intriguing.

Self-regulation within the industry obviously isn’t going to work. Consumers shouldn’t trust companies to label and police themselves, because, honestly, which supplier is going to say ‘these potatoes produced with slave labour!’ ‘these tomato workers exposed to toxic chemicals!’ ‘80% of our workforce is illiterate!’? What about third party certification? Such certifications can be useful, but only inasmuch as they’re clearly defined, firmly administered, and audited by third parties of their own. The infrastructure required would also be vast, as the organisation would need to survey workers on a truly massive scale, in full awareness of the fact that it would have to routinely recertify so companies wouldn’t turn around and return to abusing workers as soon as they got the shiny medallion to put on their products.

Government oversight seems like the most logical way to address working conditions, since the government is supposed to be doing this anyway, yet it seems to be doing a pretty piss-poor job of it thus far. While some of the most egregious cases have been identified and prosecuted by the Department of Justice, other companies skate right on by, and do so right under the government’s eye. It operates in full awareness of the fact that exploitation of workers is the only reason the US agriculture economy works at all. The collapse of widespread slavery in the United States was followed immediately by the development of other means of worker exploitation, because otherwise, farming doesn’t pay enough to feed the capitalist maw.

There seems to be a lot of anger and resistance to talking about the treatment of workers in the West. Perhaps because many people dislike the realisation that when it comes to social issues like food justice, there’s always more. There’s always another facet. And that issue is no less important than the other issues.