The Hands That Feed Us

Because so little has changed, her years in the fields seem to melt together. She works under abusive crew bosses and beside people who are sick but cannot take time off to get care. She works alongside youngsters less than 12-years-old, the U.S. legal limit for child labor, because some families need every hand to get by. Working from sunup to darkness without drinking water or a toilet nearby to relieve herself, she goes in the bushes, if there are any.

"It's the same situation. There is no difference," says Florabeth de la Garza, resting at the end of the day's work in a sleazy, airless motel room in a southwest Michigan farm town. The room is just big enough for a bed.

It's been twenty-three years since she first crossed the border from Mexico and slipped into the migrant stream. One of few possessions that she drags everywhere is a suitcase full of her diaries and photographs. They are her record of lives abused and broken in the fields.

You would think that after many decades of farmworker abuse and increased public awareness of such conditions, life would be far better today for the Florabeth de la Garzas who harvest and process what we eat. But that is not the case -- even with federal and state protections and the efforts of unions and worker-advocacy and human-rights groups.

Rather, as nonunion operations have made inroads into once heavily unionized industries such as food processing, packinghouse workers have been maimed and crippled. And farmworkers' lives today are as brutal as they were years ago. Both of these groups of workers suffer from hazards, abuses, and poor working conditions that have only worsened in some cases, say union officials and legal-rights, immigrant, and worker advocacy groups.

These workplace hells persist because of gaps in the labor laws and understaffed ranks of state and federal inspectors, and because a largely nonunion, immigrant workforce in the fields and packinghouses is terrified to speak up. These conditions are also the result of a food-supply system concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, where the costs have been driven down on workers' backs.

In the Michigan fields where de la Garza picked blueberries this summer, for example, she was getting 40 cents a pound, about 10 cents a bucket less than she would have earned a decade ago, according to officials with Farmworker Legal Services in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

***

The federal government could make a difference in these workers' lives without getting bogged down in a political battle in Congress. Relying on an executive order, it could set codes of labor conduct for firms from whom it buys billions annually in food for its school-lunch, military, and numerous others meal programs.

The government would be taking a page from the anti-sweatshop campaigns that have publicly embarrassed clothing companies into cleaning up the labor conditions at their factories at home and abroad, and from the history of affirmative -- action executive orders governing federal contractors. A similar strategy was used by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community organization based in Immokalee, Florida, when it demanded that giant food corporations provide better conditions and pay for the workers picking crops for the companies' middlemen suppliers.

Arturo S. Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers union, says the idea of linking the government's food purchases to a code of conduct for workers makes good sense. "The traditional ways of trying to improve conditions for farmworkers have not been successful," he explains. Government action could affect a sizeable number of workers; the UFW estimates that the government buys about $4 billion yearly in fruits, vegetables, eggs, and dairy products from vendors.

This would benefit consumers as well as workers. "If you have a group of workers who are not treated with respect and are eking out a living the best way they can, they are not going to take the time to tell you what's happening in the fields," Rodriguez says. And what's happening affects food safety as well as worker treatment. UFW officials point to academic studies showing infected workers' ties to contamination outbreaks in the U.S. involving strawberries, scallions, leaf lettuce, basil, green onions, and parsley.

Paradoxically, because farmworkers are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act) it is easier for government to improve conditions by executive order, if government would only act. Courts have held that government may not use its contracting power to punish companies that violate the Wagner Act's right-to-organize provisions, since that act is intended to be the prime legal structure for collective bargaining -- though it is notable for not being enforced. But because farmworkers are outside the Wagner Act, the president could use executive orders to compel fair treatment of workers, including recognizing their right to organize, wherever a government contractor was involved.

***

Worker safety continues to be another enforcement failure. Patty Lovera, an assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, says her talks with food inspectors and others have convinced her that the speed of the assembly line at slaughter houses is critical for both safe food and safe conditions for workers. "If there were slower line speeds you would be more successful in taking out parts that are dangerous," she says. Lovera is also convinced that the lack of sick leave for workers creates a food danger. "If you don't get paid [to stay home] when you are sick, and you are handling food, there is a food-safety connection."

When researchers from the Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest talked with meatpackers across Nebraska several years ago, they heard complaints similar to those described in a 2005 Human Rights Watch report on U.S. meatpacking.

Workers told of "crippling line speeds" and physically abusive jobs that left some with hands curled like chicken claws. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they had suffered on-the-job injuries in the last year, a much higher percentage than the one projected nationally by the meatpacking industry. They complained about understaffing that trapped them in grueling assignments. And they described abusive supervisors who ignored workers' pleas to use a bathroom. "I know of three people who urinated and pooped in their pants and afterward [the supervisor] just laughed at you," one worker told the Lincoln, Nebraska-based researchers.

Especially striking was the fact that nearly all of the workers realized they had rights, but less than a third thought their rights mattered. This was a sad comment on the reality of the Meatpacking Industry Worker Bill of Rights that Nebraska had passed a decade earlier. The state also has a coordinator to make sure workers' rights are not ignored.

Darcy Tromanhauser, director of the Appleseed Center's immigrant program, recalls a conversation with a former food inspector who said workers with dull knives "were so desperate to sharpen their knives and weren't given time and so they sharpened them on the floor." But enforcement remains spotty.

Don Lipton, a spokesperson for the powerful American Farm Bureau in Washington, D.C., signals industry resistance to these worker-protection efforts. The Ag industry would look with "some alarm" at any effort to increase its costs or add more regulations, Lipton warns. "The industry has done a lot of self-regulation to be in compliance with better standards for workers," he says.

As for raising costs, UFW officials say a a 5-cent increase in the price of a pint of strawberries could result in a 50 percent increase in workers' wages. Likewise, officials from the United Food and Commercial Workers union point out that pay hikes for workers are likely to benefit taxpayers. Better conditions mean fewer workers on public assistance, Medicaid, or food stamps -- services on which many workers at low-wage, nonunion packinghouses rely, UFCW spokesperson Scott Frotman explains.

The unions want the government to bar vendors from retaliating against workers who speak out about health issues. Likewise, they would like to see vendors barred from charging the government for the costs of fighting union organizing drives. Even more important, they say the government should bar companies that violate labor laws.

UFCW officials point to Agriprocessors, Inc., the Kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, as an example of a nonunion workforce where troubles festered in silence for years. In 2007 the union had revealed a large number of federal citations regarding unsafe food conditions at the plant. But the true conditions at the plant did not emerge until a massive immigration raid there in 2008. Soon after the raid, the mostly immigrant workforce, many of them without papers, told officials about putting in 12-hour shifts for days in a row and being cheated out of their wages. Some workers on the cutting line were as young as 13. "When there is a union in the facility, workers are more likely to come forward," Frotman says.

"In union plants, contracts regulate everything from line speed to equipment to establishing employee-safety committees," he adds. His union represents about 30 percent of the workers at major poultry plants, 55 percent at leading beef-packing plants, and 75 percent at the major pork-processing plants.

***

Which takes us back to Florabeth de la Garza.

Are her work and the jobs of thousands in the food industry so abusive that the government needs to take an extra step to make a difference? UFW President Rodriguez offers a story to explain the situation.

He tells of a recent meeting with a group of elementary schoolchildren in California's San Joaquin Valley, where he asked how many of them work in the fields alongside their parents. "About half of them raised their hands, and I was surprised," he says. "People are still fighting for the very basics."

He praises U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis for boosting inspections in the farm fields. But he says the existing inspection force is far from enough to protect the nation's more than 2.5 million farmworkers. As an example, he points to California, where 15 farmworkers have died from heat exposure since the state laid down strict regulations in 2005 to protect workers. "And that is a state where we have a regulation," he says. Most states, he adds, do not even track such figures, let alone have regulations.

Dismayed by the conditions facing many of the 90,000 farmworkers who flock to Michigan, Thomas K. Thornburg, head of the Farmworker Legal Services offices in Kalamazoo, asked the Michigan Civil Rights Commission to investigate the situation. The organization held a number of hearings last year and issued a report in March 2010.

The report described farmworkers living in "extremely substandard" housing, sometimes with no water, forcing farmworkers to spend their earnings on water. It told of families so jammed together in camp housing that diseases spread quickly from "family to family and from families to strangers."

The commission cited workers' accounts of being cheated out of their wages but not speaking up because they were undocumented or because they feared losing the work. One farmworker told the commission about a family of three that earned only $46 for nine hours of work.

Such complaints are not new to Teresa Hendricks, director of the Migrant Legal Aid office in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "Conditions are getting worse," she bluntly says. "There's a lack of inspections, and it's just cheaper not to comply with the regulations."

What worries her and others is the flood of workers joining the regulars in Michigan's fields. Some are former factory employees out of work because of immigration crackdowns. Some are young men coming up from Mexico. A few are newcomers hungry for work.

Because it is hard to get in a full day's earnings, families will try to put their underage children in the fields, de la Garza says. They want to make as much as they can before immigration officials catch them, she says. "There's a trailer with only two rooms and 18 people from three families living there," she adds. "They know it is wrong, but they don't say anything because they don't have papers."

But de la Garza, who travels the yearly migrant route from Florida to Michigan to Colorado and back again, will write about it in her diaries, a cruel tale that barely changes.

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