Some Reflections on Farm Workers’ Rights
What were 1.5 million agricultural works to do after NAFTA flooded Mexico’s market with artificially low priced corn, effectively eliminating their jobs? Speaking at Yale on October 11th, that was just one question Richard Mandelbaum of the Comité De Apoyo A Los Trabajadores Agrícolas (C.A.T.A.), or the Farmworker Support Committee, posed to us. Among the others: how are we to think about a racialized food system, and how does that system neglect the livelihoods of millions in the United States?
First and foremost, it’s vital to recognize the inherent harm to which agricultural workers in this country are vulnerable, especially those 300,000 employed in the fields of big agribusiness companies. Aside from being exposed to various pesticide and fungicide toxins and the possibility of machine-related accidents, many of these folks live without adequate healthcare (if any at all) and under threat of deportation due to their status as transnational undocumented workers.
What makes the food system even more unjust is that most farmworkers have none of the rights afforded in every other workplace. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, which provide for overtime compensation, Social Security, unemployment, workers comp, and protection against child labor, as well as organizing rights provided by the National Labor Relations Act, aren’t guaranteed in the fields. This can lead to conditions in direct violation of international laws governing human rights and safe work places.
Furthermore, we cannot ignore the fact that our food system is highly racialized. People of color have been bound to fields since this country’s earliest days, when its founders imported laborers from Africa to work the land. Abolition lead to sharecropping, slavery’s cousin; our current system exploits immigrants from Mexico (increasingly from indigenous and rural communities) and other Central and South American countries, taking advantage of their poverty, ignorance and lack of legal standing to force them to do jobs that citizens would never consider taking on.
Reform is happening in many sites throughout the food system. While media often privileges small sustainable farmers and farmers’ market patrons, it’s important that we expand our focus to include resistance by migrant and settled farmworkers elsewhere in the United States. C.A.T.A is organizing, training, and fighting for farmworker justice in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. What’s more, their organization is led by a board of directors composed of organization members, all of whom are fieldworkers. This is a telling example of power created by and for the people most marginalized by our everyday food choices. Justice is possible, but it’ll take a lot more than buying our salvation; for more information about how to get involved in and support the fight for food and farmworker justice, visit www.cata-farmworkers.org.
Cody Hooks is a junior American Studies major in Trumbull College. He was a 2011 Lazarus Summer Intern on the Yale Farm.