The “Elephant” in the Farm Bill: Farmworker Welfare

Written in Spring of 2018 prior to the adoption of the latest Farm Bill. Unfortunately this didn’t make it on to the agenda at the House or Senate, but we did succeed in bending the ear of one state rep… read on!

Co-authored with the phenomenal Emanuelle Klachky

After a five-day hunger strike outside the headquarters of the Wendy’s fast-food chain, a crowd of farmworkers began marching through Manhattan to deliver a message: time’s up on the unfair treatment and exploitation of farmworkers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization fighting for farmworker rights, organized the demonstration last March after Wendy’s refused to sign their fair food agreement. By signing on with CIW, Wendy’s would have agreed to enact humane labor standards and fair wages for farmworkers in their tomato suppliers’ operations; they said no. CIW’s “Time’s Up Wendy’s March” highlights one of the most pressing issues facing our country – and it’s much bigger than Wendy’s tomato supply chain.

Farmworkers are the backbone of U.S. agriculture and are essential to our nation’s food supply, yet there is no mention of farm labor standards within the 1,000 pages of the Farm Bill, the comprehensive piece of legislation governing our food and agriculture policies. With Congress currently redrafting this omnibus bill, it is time to address the “elephant” in the Farm Bill: farmworker welfare.

The Farm Bill was initially created in 1933 to stabilize crop prices and support farmers during the Great Depression, and has since evolved to reflect emerging issues within agriculture and food policy. The existing Farm Bill includes numerous regulations to protect both animals and wildlife conservation, yet no such measures exist for the 1 million farmworkers without whom the agricultural sector would crumble. With over 70% of farmworkers born outside of the U.S. and – nearly half of those undocumented – farmworkers are an extremely vulnerable population. They are excluded from national labor laws that protect workers’ rights, and are often subjected to poor working conditions, job instability, and unpaid wages.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, U.S. Representative for Oregon’s 3rd congressional district, thinks that farmworker welfare belongs in the food and farm legislative agenda. “Federal programs should meet the needs of farmworkers, employers, and consumers to help them work within the system and ensure they are treated fairly,” said the Congressman in a recent interview. He has endorsed proposed bill H.R. 2690, the Agricultural Worker Program Act, to safeguard farm workers from deportation by allowing individuals to earn a “blue card”.

The agriculture industry is dependent upon migrant labor, and increasing immigration control has led to a growing labor shortage, resulting in crops often being left on the ground. Clearly, immigration and agriculture are tightly related, which might lead to the argument that farm labor falls under immigration policy and does not belong in the Farm Bill. To be sure, both immigration and labor laws need to be reformed to protect agricultural workers from being exploited or living in fear while working to put food on our plates. The Agricultural Worker Program Act and other state-specific initiatives are steps in the right direction.

Still, the Farm Bill should acknowledge agriculture’s dependence on immigrant workers and institute controls at the national level to ensure their fair treatment. Some farms have opted into various non-governmental programs that offer special certification for fair labor practices. Programs such as the Agricultural Justice Project and the Equitable Food Initiative outline labor standards that recognize and protect the rights of workers throughout the supply chain, starting with farmworkers. But providing fair labor practices should not be done solely for the sake of a market-premium certification. The Farm Bill should use these models to mandate basic rights for agricultural workers, and impose penalties for non-compliance. If the USDA can oversee the certification of organic produce, they can also implement a fair labor certification, with these programs providing the blueprint.

Congressman Blumenauer touched the heart of the matter when he said, “[Farmworker’s] living and working conditions reflect both the health of our food system and how we, as a country, treat each other.” Now that the redrafting of the Farm Bill is upon us, it is time to take our rally cry from Wendy’s doorstep to the halls of Congress: time’s up on excluding farmworker welfare from the Farm Bill.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s