US farm labour practices

Last night I was invited to attend a panel discussion on the rights of farmworkers here in San Francisco. The four panelists were all experts in their fields and highlighted some of the deplorable situations under which many farmworkers in America labour.

While there’s been tremendous growth in the availability of quality food in wealthy countries these past few years, the politics of bringing it to the table has often been glossed over.

In Slow Food’s call for food that is “good, clean and fair”, there is an implicit acknowledgement of the rights of the people who bring us our food. Panelists at last night’s discussion pointed out that even local and organic food here in California doesn’t necessarily mean that labour standards for farm workers are what we might expect.

The true cost of good food includes labour

The true cost of good food includes labour

Farm workers in the US are so often illegal immigrants that they have no rights to start with. The ability to complain about poor and abusive work practices, when even their presence in the country is illegal means they live in fear. This constant fear has led to some shocking examples, including actual modern day slavery. See more about this here. Illegal labourers living in trailers subsist on diets of instant ramen noodles and Pepsi. They’re picking quality fruits and vegetables that keep the well-to-do in cities alive. Is this fair?

Child labour laws in the US exempt farm work, so while “it is legal today for a 12 year old to perform back-breaking work in 100-degree weather for 10-12 hours a day, the law will not allow that child to work in an air-conditioned office for two hours a day.” (Children in the Fields campaign) Many struggling farm labourers’ children work alongside their parents in fields all over the US, performing activities such as tomato, blueberry and squash picking. The labour component of a punnet of blueberries is consequently insignificant.

If you’ve ever wondered why canned tomatoes from Italy are so cheap, wonder no longer. Several years ago a documentary on SBS highlighted the plight of African workers labouring the tomato fields of southern Italy. Find out more in a European Parliament report or the original journalist’s investigation.

In addition to such brutal farmworker practices as outlined in these reports, you must also remember that food in Europe operates in a shockingly distorted economic environment so the true price of a single item like a can of tomatoes is impossible to determine. The alternate Australian can of tomatoes is not nearly as mired in labour misery and industry economic rewards. The price you see on the shelf of the domestic product represents pretty accurately the following: the land, the tomato plant, the growing time, the labour to pick it paid at award wages, the can itself, the label, the packing and handling, the transport and distribution and the retail margin. Trying to get those same components squeezed into the consumer price of a can of 99 cent Italian tomatoes is like getting camels to disappear through the eye of a needle. Imagining the price difference is just “economic size and efficiency” is ignoring the obvious.

Nobodies

A new book highlights farmworker rights

I often hear people who’ve been to the US and to Europe, or who visit from those places, comment on the relative expense of fresh food in Australia. I had often suspected that a huge component of this apparent difference, in addition to our seemingly-eternal drought, is the price we pay for labour in this country and the more research I do, the more convinced I am of this.

You may not be aware that the Australian agricultural industry relies very significantly on backpackers for labour. Fruit and vegetable picking by backpackers is something that tends not to rate in the news (with the exception of the backpacker hostel fire in Childers, Queensland some years ago when 15 young backpackers died).

Quite simple, we do not have the “luxury” in Australia of an endless pool of cheap, exploitable labour, as exists in North America and Europe. Young backpackers from wealthy first-world countries, having extended vacations in Australia, are not so easily taken advantage of. Conditions, while not what these young people would want to work under for the rest of their lives, are not generally poor. Pay and conditions are well-regulated, the workers know they have rights, they’re left time to socialize at night and their ability to leave should the situation be onerous means exploitative work practices on farms are very limited.

I certainly don’t think Australians wouldn’t take advantage of the ability to employ cheap, illegal labour on a wide scale if it were possible. However our geography has saved us from having to make such choices.

We might pay more for Australian food by not directly abutting the third world but we’re also very fortunate in our isolation in not having nasty alternatives to tempt us.

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