In 2009, the CEO and vice president of Bon Appétit visited southern Florida with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), "to get a firsthand look at the labor conditions for the pickers who supply winter tomatoes to kitchens across the U.S." What they saw there, according to Bon Appétit, prompted the company to draft a Code of Conduct that establishes "game-changing fair labor requirements for Florida tomato growers," and to then say they would not buy tomatoes from growers that didn't sign it.
The company says it spent the next year looking at other agriculture sectors, and then decided to partner with United Farm Workers and Oxfam America in order to get a real sense of the scale of the problem nationwide. That collaboration produced a report released yesterday (César Chávez Day) detailing the conditions and treatment of farm laborers around the country.United Farm Workers says: "More and more Americans are asking questions about where their food comes from, but few are going so far as to think about who picked it. Farmworkers remain in the shadows."
The report, Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States (summary and full report both available for download), exposes the reality of life for crop farmworkers in the U.S. UFW hopes it will lead to the development of verifiable and enforceable standards for farm work that can be supported by both individual consumers and socially responsible corporations.
The main findings of the report are:
- Lack of Wage and Hour Standards
- Few Labor Protections for Children and Youth Farmworkers
- Lack of Transparency by Farm Labor Contractors
- Sub-standard Housing and Unsafe Transportation
- Exclusion from Unemployment Insurance
- Prevention of Collective Bargaining
- Lack of Workers' Compensation Protections
- Loopholes for Occupational Safety and Health Standards
- Heat Stress
- Pesticide Exposure
An estimated 300,000 to 800,000 workers are 18 or under, and are excluded from many legal protections required in other industries. "For example, federal laws permit children as young as 12 to be hired to do farm work (with some limitations) and youth as young as 16 are permitted to do hazardous tasks restricted in other sectors.
And farmworkers are exempt from most federal minimum wage and hour guarantees. The report says, "Farmworkers generally earn very little and are seldom employed year-round. Between 2005 and 2009, about a third of farmworkers earned less than $7.25/hour and only a quarter of all farmworkers reported working more than nine months in the previous year. One-quarter of all farmworkers had family incomes below the federal poverty line."
But the report isn't all complaints; it suggests steps toward a better future:
- Making the role of farmworkers in the U.S. food system visible through existing data
- Translating this data into easily accessible and meaningful formats for the public
- Providing greater consumer choice through local-level data
- Leveraging increased consumer choice to drive greater accountability in the food system
- Fostering cross-sector collaboration among employers, industry, and farmworker advocates to work towards safe and fair employment conditions for U.S. farmworkers.
More on agriculture and labor in the U.S.
Growing Concern That Republicans' E-Verify Plan Would Deport U.S. Agriculture Along With Workers
The TH Interview: John Bowe, Author of "Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy"
5 Questions You Didn't Know You Should Ask at the Farmers' Market
United Farm Workers to America: Take Our Jobs (Updated, with VIDEO)
Two Victories in One Week for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers - Are More Needed?