Conventional Agriculture and the Exploitation of Migrant Workers
What we today call conventional agriculture really isn’t conventional at all. It is mostly a product of the twentieth century and was particularly accelerated in the wake of World War II. In other words, this type of farming is barely two generations old. Yet the tendency towards ever-larger and more mechanized farms that require more energy and become ever more dependent upon harmful chemicals and fertilizers have utterly changed the face of the countryside all over the world. In the United States in particular, these methods have led to having extremely cheap food readily available, but these conventional methods have come at a price.
Why Cheap Food is Cheap
Modern agribusiness calls for large-scale, highly mechanized practices that require large amounts of fossil fuels, water and heavy use of chemical fertilizers to keep up production quotas. In spite of all this new technology, however, there are many crops – fruit, for instance, or tomatoes – that still need to be picked by hand; this has made conventional agricultural practices very dependent upon cheap migrant labor to do this heavy work. This steady stream of often undocumented labor, along with government subsidies and farm practices like fence-to-fence ploughing and use of fertilizers and other chemicals are a few of the reasons why the United States boasts such a cheap foodstuffs.
The Condition of Migrant Workers
Part of this price has been paid on the backs of migrant workers, who will often work 12-14 hours days, 6-7 days a week at the peak of the harvest season without overtime pay. Migrant workers are, in fact, some of the lowest-paid workers in the United States. Often, to help make up for this, housing will be provided, but that housing has been substandard and dangerous, even after federal regulations as far back as the 1980’s supposedly tightened the reins on what farm owners could legally get away with. Migrant workers also have some of the most statistically dangerous jobs, most of that danger coming from proximity to farm equipment and from to exposure to pesticides, which can cause long-term respiratory problems, skin conditions, nervous system disorders and even cancer.
Life Getting Better?
Things may be changing, though, and not because of social reform but because of simple supply-and-demand economics. A variety of circumstances – the slow American economic recovery, increased opportunities in Mexico and stricter immigration and border crossing laws have caused the migrant workforce on many farms to drop by as much as a third – and farmers are feeling the pinch. Fully half of California farmers, according to a recent article in the Huffington Post, are reporting that their current staffing is inadequate for their harvests; apple orchard owners in Washington State and pear producers in Oregon have similar complaints. And this has meant a jump in wages for migrant workers, from a meager $2-3 dollars an hour up to $8. Some owners, too, are offering to feed their workers while on the job, help with transportation to and from the fields and even give a bonus if a worker stays on the farm all season.
Still, these improved circumstances may or may not last, and conditions are certainly not improving for many migrant workers all over the world. If you want to learn more about this important issue or get involved, the National Council of Churches (www.nccuusa.org) and Farmworker Justice (www.farmworkerjustice.org) both do wonderful work on this complex social problem: their website offer education about this issue and even opportunities for volunteer work. It is an excellent way to help improve a lingering, worldwide social problem that does not usually get the attention it deserves.
Huffington Post www.huffingtonpost.com
National Council of Churches www.nccusa.org
by The Great Gathering
Copyright The Great Gathering 2014©