How America gets its produce, and reality of the farmworkers who harvest it, remains to a large degree a hidden story. Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) aims to change this with a week of educational events and social media campaigns to raise awareness about the serious issues faced by farmworkers and call students and the general public to action. March 24-31, 2015 is National Farmworker Awareness Week (NFAW), culminating on Cesar Chavez Day, which honors the efforts of the United Farm Workers of America founder.
Consumers owe the vast selection of apples, grapes, strawberries, tomatoes, citrus, and many other fruits and vegetables, their access out-of-season, and their relatively low prices, to farmworkers, who are the foundation of the agricultural sector.
Despite a common misconception that farmwork is conducted primarily by machines, “85 percent of our fruits and vegetables are handpicked,” according to SAF. For the approximately 1 million farmworkers in the United States, agricultural labor includes “planting, cultivating, harvesting, and preparing crops for market or storage,” as described by SAF’s United States Farmworker Factsheet. Migrant farmworkers must travel to different work sites and reside in temporary housing. According to Gerardo Chavez, an Immokalee, FL, farmworker, “A worker has to pick two and a quarter tons of tomatoes to make the equivalent of the minimum wage, and that’s in an average day of 10 hours.”
Farmworkers perform some of the most dangerous jobs in the United States with considerably less access to social benefits than others in hazardous occupations. Risks include skin disorders, eye injuries, heat stress, and parasitic infections. Farmworkers also tend to have poor housing conditions and inferior access to education for their children. Wage theft, sexual assault, and harassment are not uncommon. According to the Farmworker Factsheet, “less than one percent of all farmworkers use general assistance welfare, only two percent use social security, and fewer than 15 percent are Medicaid recipients.” These true costs put perspective on what can seem like “cheap” food.
There are historical reasons why farmworkers have such questionable working conditions. As noted in the Farmworker Factsheet, “farmworkers were excluded from nearly all of the major federal labor laws passed in the 1930s. Some of the laws have been amended to include workers on large farms, but exemptions remain.” Among these are antiquated laws preventing farmworkers from organizing into unions; excluding farmworkers in many cases from minimum wage; preventing farmworkers from getting overtime; and allowing children ages 12 to 16 to work on farms despite child labor standards.
Farmworkers Awareness Week provides an opportunity to tell the farmworkers’ inspiring stories, support a marginalized workforce, and push the food system in a positive direction. Throughout the country, farmworkers and activists are organizing to improve working conditions; educating Americans on the movements’ innovators and organizations is key to raising awareness.
To stay connected with information and events related to farmworkers, Student Action with Farmworkers set up a Facebook page dedicated to Farmworker Awareness Week and encourage the use of hashtag #NFAW2015.
The revealing documentary Food Chains, produced by Eva Longoria, is available to view online. The film addresses farmworker labor realities, with particular focus on the issues faced by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).
CIW has been campaigning for and advancing farmworkers’ rights since the early nineties. Their success at increasing wages paid to Florida tomato farmers—while partnering with major corporations like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, through the Fair Food Program—caught the attention of the Clinton Global Initiative, which recognized CIW with a Leadership in Civil Society award.
The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), a labor union founded in 1967 by Baldemar Velasquez, improved labor conditions through its mobile organizing platform, which can move with workers as the seasons change. FLOC has over 20,000 members and facilitates agreements between workers, growers, and corporations.
Established in 1985, Treeplanters and Farmworkers United of the Northwest (PCUN) is an Oregon-based union for farmworkers, nursery, and reforestation workers that empowers agricultural laborers and counters exploitation.
United Farm Workers of America (UFW), founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in 1962, is the largest and oldest organization for farmworkers in the United States. UFW has achieved agreements with some of the nation’s largest food producers.
The decisions consumers make also have an impact on working conditions by highlighting consumer preferences for justly harvested food. As noted by Fair Trade USA, “fair trade is a powerful way to support farmworkers with a simple purchase.”