April 23, 2019
Would you apply for a job that requires bending over for about nine hours a day to pick fruits or vegetables? Would you want a job that offered employee housing that didn’t have running water or electricity? What if your employer didn’t have to comply with minimum wage laws or child labor laws, didn’t have to pay overtime, didn’t have to provide insurance or workers’ comp, and you weren’t allowed to unionize? Not interested? Fair enough, neither are the vast majority of US citizens. According to the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey, 75 percent of all crop labor in the United States is done by immigrants from Central America and Mexico, and about half of all crop workers surveyed reported being in the country illegally.
But the United States’ reliance on immigrant labor goes beyond fruits, vegetables and nuts. It’s more difficult to come by information on employees in farmed animal processing plants, but estimates indicate that the majority of these workers are either immigrants themselves or descendants of recent immigrants from Latin America. The use of knives and hooks for slaughter, the use of extremely hot water in processing plants and constant worker exposure to farmed animal feces and entrails – in addition to other hazards – make animal processing at least nine times as dangerous as the average US profession.
So, the existing evidence is fairly strong that those of us who depend on the United States’ food system also really depend on immigration and even illegal immigration to feed ourselves. The conditions that we have created for food production in our industrial model are so dangerous, difficult and low-paying that most people with the benefit of citizenship have opted not to take jobs in those sectors. For all the same reasons, it can be perceived as beneficial to growers and processors to hire illegal immigrants who lack the protections afforded to citizens and whose fear of deportation, job loss and/or violence makes them less likely to fight back against sub-standard working conditions. Growers sometimes work with recruiters who find immigrants, both legal and illegal, to fill their labor needs. Shockingly, there are documented cases of these recruiters engaging in human trafficking and even forms of modern day slavery, as defined by US law.
It’s important to note here that I have no perception of food producers as miserly Scrooges, bent on abusing their employees. Instead the situation is that all of us – employees, producers, processors, eaters – are caught in a system that neither respects our right to healthy food nor the need to pay adequately for growing it. This system demands that we keep production costs as low as possible in an attempt to keep food “affordable.” Thus producers often have little choice but to rely on marginalized labor.
It’s been well documented that there’s really no such thing as cheap food; it’s just that many of the costs of growing food are hidden. Economists call these hidden costs externalities – expenses that are not reflected in the price of a good or service. As described in this post, farm laborers and meat processors bear some of these expenses for us by sacrificing living wages, the rights enjoyed by most other US workers, and physical and mental health. So, if we treat workers with respect and pay them adequately, does that mean our food will cost more? Well, it doesn’t have to. For example, we pay more for the advertising behind the food we eat at restaurants than we do for farmers to grow that food. Said another way, we could more than double farm worker wages without increasing the price we pay at the register, if food advertising dollars were eliminated from the equation. Of course, our food system is far more complex than this simple give-and-take example. My argument is simply that there’s plenty of room for improvements to internalize some production costs without adversely impacting consumers.
We really can afford to turn negative externalities, like mistreatment of workers, into internalized benefits like improved working conditions and living wages that make agricultural jobs appealing options for citizens and legal migrants. We can do so by sacrificing profits in the middle, between producers and consumers, using this money to pay workers (and for other awesome things like drinkable water and breathable air), with no impact to consumer prices. We can have a food system that supports public health not only by providing all Americans access to good food, but also by ensuring that food workers have the opportunity to protect themselves from workplace hazards and live in circumstances that promote instead of hinder their health.
Immigration reform is only one part of much larger reform efforts needed across the United States food system, but it is a good place to start, especially in light of the heated debates currently raging in congress and between legislators and President Trump. Public health experts at the Johns Hopkins Center for A Livable Future (CLF) note that “A reformed immigration system must acknowledge immigrant workers’ vital role in the U.S. food system…” The authors suggest passing immigration reform for farm and processing plant workers that:
- Makes it easier, not harder, to gain legal entry for employment in US agriculture when workers are needed
- Extends health insurance participation to these workers
- Requires overtime pay and minimum wages, consistent with the Fair Labor Standards Act
- Mandates employers to provide workers’ compensation insurance
- Provides funding to improve workplace safety on farms and in processing plants
- Provides funding for safe employee housing
- Strengthens enforcement of human trafficking laws in agriculture
Many of these provisions are included in the Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2019, currently stalled in committee.
For a more in-depth discussion on this topic, please read CLF’s 2017 report, “Public Health, Immigration Reform, and Food System Change.” Another CLF resource on immigration reform is the new CLF Food & Agriculture Policy Recommendations for the Trump Administration and 116th Congress (specifically the section “Food System Workers”).
Images: Top: Mike Milli. Bottom: https://imgur.com/gallery/nKcwxmb