Saturday, August 7, 2010

farmers and workers and economic justice

Several things have intersected to leave me thinking about the relative poverty of farm workers and many farmers. I've been working some on my thoughts about domestic poverty for the initiative of the North American Association for the Diaconate. I realized that we think about hunger as the place the poverty agenda relates to the food system, and not as much as we should about the lot of farm laborers and other workers in the food system as a point of intersection.

It's once again our emphasis on our life as consumers, rather than producers of our food.

Ellen Davis' book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: an Agrarian Reading of the Bible got me thinking about how little we value those who care for the land. Or even more so these days, how often our means of food production discourage those who do the work from caring for the land, and hence distance us from them and them from the land.

Then I listened to the July 24 Queens of Green podcast, an interview with Megan Beaman Carlson of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). Host Temra Costa was inspired by news of heat-related deaths in the Central Valley to ask some questions about working conditions for California farm workers.

Here are some things I learned from listening:
* There are about 450,000 field workers in California during peak periods.
* Such work is hazardous, with high rates of injury, illness and death.
* About half the deaths of field workers each year are from HEAT!
* The hazards of working in extreme heat are often exacerbated by quota systems - so many vines pruned or peaches picked. The quotas are a minimum for staying employed, and they are not adjusted for weather conditions.
* Laws for agricultural work are different than for manufacturing jobs. Overtime kicks in only after 60 hours (not the usual 40), for example.
* Laws and rights are the same, whether workers are citizens, have green cards, or are undocumented. But those who are undocumented often are less aware of their rights, and are fearful or unskilled at pursuing them. Some undocumented workers have Spanish as a second language, and any English third.
* Unlike for environmental and health impacts, there are no labeling or other information systems for shoppers in the produce aisle to identify companies with fair labor practices.

The Queens of Green wonder why we have no domestic fair trade initiatives, and so do I.

We take such pride in buying crafts and coffee and chocolate from artisans and farmers in other countries who are getting their fair share of what we pay for their products. What about right here at home?

Now there's a challenge to domestic poverty.

No comments: