Friday, August 26, 2016

Romantic agrarianism

The previous blog post was on the conditions for workers in China. American working conditions can be little different as this story from In TheseTimes demonstrates. 

Exploitative conditions on factory farms have rightly drawn the attention of academics, activists, and journalists. Indeed, the vast majority of research on farmworkers focuses on the largest farming sites. Consumers are offered countless reasons to avoid produce from them—but few alternatives other than to “buy local.” The localist advocates say that when we buy locally grown food directly from farms, we not only secure fresher, more seasonal produce, but we also create an intimate, trusting relationship with the farmer and they have highlighted the many positive aspects of local food systems: economic and social justice, the sense of community facilitated by face-to-face interactions with food producers, and the civic engagement and democracy promoted by alternative agri-systems. This supposed bond reinforces the common understanding that the local food production process is more wholesome than the industrial agricultural system.

In promoting local diets as healthy and righteous alternatives to the capitalist-industrial monoculture food system, such writers have sold us an idea premised on a false dichotomy. On one hand, they demonize factory farms for poisoning the land and local waterways, for confining and mistreating animals, and for exploiting their workers in the name of earning profits. On the other hand, they promote local agriculture as the antidote to the factory farms’ corporate ills and ensure animals are treated humanely. The food activists use terms like local, alternative, sustainable, and fair to distinguish local food production from the hated factory farm. But they often conflate these terms. And with all of the positive attention heaped on local farms, it is easy to imagine that these benefits extend to their workers.

We don’t think about workers on local farms. Instead, we assume these farms are mom-and-pop operations, or imagine that farm laborers have the sustainable jobs that the local food movement has promised. We have oversimplified alternative agriculture’s economy, while glorifying the ethos of family farming. As a result, we have largely ignored farmworkers. farmworkers feared employer retaliation. “If you behave there is work.” The threat of deportation is real, and since employers, by law, do not have to verify their employees’ documents, workers with false documents will try to limit their grievances to deflect attention from their legal status.

But research, dating back to 2000, by Margaret Gray, an associate professor of political science at Adelphi University, reveals that working conditions on local farms in New York’s Hudson Valley are not very different from those on the factory farms that dominate the headlines. 99 percent were foreign born. The vast majority, 71 percent, were non-citizen Latinos; 20 percent were on H-2A guest-worker visas and hailed from Jamaica or Latin America. Most of the Latinos spoke little English, had low literacy in their native languages, and, on average, received a sixth-grade formal education. The lack of English skills actually benefits their employers, who see learning the language as a stepping-stone to becoming American.  Hudson Valley farmworkers were not primarily migrant workers: they lived in New York year-round, even if their farm jobs were seasonal. Many acutely analyzed their positions—they were utterly dependent on farm wages, lonely, and alienated.

The work they perform is difficult, dirty, and strenuous; it requires repeated bending or crouching, sometimes with sharp implements, and sometimes in extreme weather for long hours. “You are dead by the end of the day; your arms and your feet ache because of standing all day,” one worker said. A field hand thought dogs were treated better than he was. There are stories of wage theft, human trafficking, sexual harassment, illegal firings, and intimidation. But even if employers were prosecuted for such violations of existing law, the job would still exploit workers. In New York—as in most other states—farmworkers do not have a right to a day of rest, they do not have a right to overtime pay, and they do not have a right to collective bargaining.

This means that some work eighty to ninety hours a week, for minimum wage, sometimes over seven days. Farmworkers argue that the law sets them up for exploitation since it fails to recognize them as equal to other workers. Workers’ disempowerment in the workplace is the most critical issue they face. While getting paid for hours worked is the most basic element of the labor contract, many farmworkers reported that their paychecks would have missing several work hours. But, like many of the most vulnerable laborers, they were too afraid to say anything. Guest-workers repeatedly said that they were “taught to be quiet.” They explained that if they joined a union or questioned their employment benefits, they would not be allowed to return to the United States.

The plight of hyper-exploited workers on small farms will remain hidden if activists continue to portray factory farming as a unique evil facilitated by some kind of spiritual disconnect from the land, rather than one particularly telling example of capitalism’s inhumanity.

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