Women of the fields

Consumers play a vital role in industry reforms in a variety of settings — they’re the ones with the power to push for change, as seen for just one example in the arena of food labeling. It’s consumers who demanded ‘organic’ food and got it. It’s consumers who pressured for a number of other changes in agricultural practices. For nutritional information. For details about where their food comes from, in response to high-profile discussions about issues surrounding the food system. For all this food activism, though, farmworkers, the people growing and harvesting and handling the food, are often left out, just like the people labouring in slave conditions overseas, perhaps most infamously in the shrimp industry.

Imagine, though, some labeling and disclosure changes.

…female farmworkers were groped, repeatedly propositioned for sex and subjected to lewd comments about their bodies by their supervisors and male co-workers while working at County Fair Farm…the women were subjected to retaliation, including termination and constructive discharge.

Or perhaps…

…a class of female Hispanic farmworkers, were subjected to sexual harassment by managers, including but not limited to sexual touching, comments, gestures, and sexual propositions. They were also subjected to retaliatory conduct, including termination, for reporting harassment.

Maybe…

Charging parties, female Hispanic farmworkers, were subjected to egregious sexual harassment, including rape by two sons of the owner of Moreno Farms and a third male supervisor. The sexual harassment included regular groping, propositions, and threats of firing if they refused sexual advances. All five women were fired for opposing the sexual harassment.

But this might be better…

Charging party, a pregnant farmworker, was fired nine days after disclosing to the company that she was pregnant with twins in violation of Title VII. She was fired despite the fact that her doctor had cleared her to work with no restrictions.

Or…

Thai farmworkers were trafficked to the U.S. under H2-A visas and subjected to deplorable working conditions, including but not limited to harassment, lower wages, prohibited from leaving farm, threats of deportation.

I don’t want to belabour the point. The EEOC is quite happy to do it for me (and has in fact helped aggressively attack rape and sexual harassment on US farms). Farmworkers, women in particular, are frequent targets for assaults on their bodily autonomy. It’s been quite widely covered in the news, it’s well known and understood, and yet there has been no movement or suggestion for a ‘cruelty-free’ label aimed at farmworkers. I don’t see ‘rape-free’ labeling on products or ‘grown without sexual harassment’ stickers on my produce. In fact, I see no acknowledgement of this huge industry-wide systemic issue at all among consumers or the people who are perpetuating it.

I have covered this subject extensively and my opinions on it are well known. I want it to stop. It’s vile and horrific and awful and it infuriates me to know that I have no way of knowing how the people who picked my lettuce or made the cheese I’m eating were treated, although I can probably guess. If I can’t grow it at home, I have to resort to the industrial food system to some degree or another, and I don’t necessarily assume that small farms are safe places to work either, because I’ve seen the EEOC filings. While incidents may be less common, and on family farms are almost nonexistent, it’s still an issue.

Farmworkers make a great vulnerable population in the eyes of predators because many are undocumented, afraid, and desperate. They can’t afford to lose their jobs because they won’t be able to support their families, whether in the US or in their native countries. They really can’t afford to be deported. They endure trafficking and horrible conditions because their exploitation is the only way they can find and keep work, and in addition to being used for their labour, they’re also used for their bodies in a more immediate and ugly way, in an exertion of power and control to keep them humiliated and give managers, overseers, and farm owners a feeling of self-satisfaction.

This is the reality for the women of the fields, to go to work every day knowing that they can be targeted. Many start work early and stay late, breaking their backs to handle produce as quickly as possible, especially during the peak of the growing season. And all the while, as they bend over to weed and snip and transplant, they know that a hand could slip up a skirt, a foreman could appear with an order to follow him.

And we can stop this. Consumers with concerns about the food system generally fixate on ‘health’ issues and subjects like additives or agricultural chemicals. But human rights are an issue too, and even as people pledge to boycott shrimp in horror in the wake of reports exposing the terrible conditions that shrimpers overseas endure, those same individuals aren’t taking steps to address the abuse of workers in the food system at home. Imagine, if you will, a system in which foods could be specifically labeled to indicate that their farms of origin were regularly inspected, that workers received a fair wage, that they weren’t raped, harassed, or intimidated at work, that housing and bathroom facilities were clean and usable. Imagine that, for a moment. Imagine not the failings of the Rainforest Alliance, which tolerated horrific conditions for tea workers on plantations it certified, but instead the Fair Food Program, which focuses on workers and their needs. You can obtain a handful of goods with the Fair Food certification now, but imagine if they occupied a whole aisle in the grocery store, what that might look like.

It’s not going to happen, though, without you.

Image: Farm Workers, Stuart Rankin, Flickr