Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A long road for farm laborers

The U.S. food system relies fundamentally on hired farm workers. The physical labor is as hard as any in the U.S. economy, it is sometimes dangerous, and it pays little.

From the summary of a recent USDA report:
Hired farm workers make up a third of the total agricultural labor force and are critical to U.S. agricultural production, particularly in labor-intensive sectors such as fruits and vegetables. The hired farm worker labor market is unique because it includes a large population of relatively disadvantaged and often unauthorized workers, a portion of whom migrate to, and within, the United States.
Hired farm workers are usually recent immigrants, and frequently undocumented. Wages remain low, because the supply of laborers is great, and their alternatives to farm labor are limited. Even as a market economist, who usually admires the way a free labor market assigns workers to the jobs where their work is most valuable, I can barely wrap my mind around the gulf between the farm laborer's wage and the consumer value of the food he grows.

Considering these economic fundamentals, hope for higher wages requires either great courage or an active imagination.

This July, I visited Immokalee, Florida, to meet a group of farm workers with that kind of imagination, and ... a strategy. Lucas Benitez, with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, gave a tour including the Coalition's community center, radio station, and cooperative food store. A walk through the neighborhood took in trailer residences for seasonal workers and the site of a compound where workers had been held against their will.

The Coalition focuses on winning concessions from branded retail and restaurant companies, like the Publix supermarket chain or the leading fast food brands such as Taco Bell, Burger King, and, most recently, Chipotle. For example, the CIW might ask Taco Bell for a penny per pound more for tomato pickers, who get paid according to the quantity they pick.

The strategy is clever, because these branded companies have a strong incentive to reach an agreement. The branded companies rely on consumer goodwill toward their brand, and the cost of the agreement is tiny relative to the final retail value of the foods sold. By contrast, the farms in Florida that actually hire the laborers and grow the tomatoes operate in a cutthroat competitive market. The farms are large, as farms go, but still they are very small compared to a supermarket company or a fast food chain. Even for a prosperous farmer, a small wage increase without a commensurate increase in the tomato price is a frightening proposition.

While in Immokalee, I spoke with University of Florida agricultural economist Fritz Roka, who has written about the economics of farm labor in Southwest Florida. He noted the competitive pressures on Florida growers and the possibility that higher costs could shift tomato production to other parts of the country, or overseas.

But perhaps it's not just economics that drives the Florida farmers to fear improved wages. One of the strangest twists in the CIW's campaign came after the Coalition won its first victories from several fast food chains, but then had trouble finding farmers who were willing to pass along the wage premium. Even though it didn't cost the grower anything, because the premium is paid by the fast food chain, most growers refused to collect the premium and pass it along to the workers. The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, an organization of farmers, threatened to fine any member who participated in the premium agreements. In other words, it is not just market economics that keeps the laborer's wage low. The growers actively coordinate their efforts to prevent the premium from being paid.

Casting about in vain for an explanation for the growers' stance, I wonder if the farmers are just offended at the gumption of the immigrant laborers in demanding for a higher wage rather than accepting the natural hierarchy of the local economy. Among Florida's many cultural traditions, a flavor of the pre-Civil-Rights Deep South still has a place. I emailed Reggie Brown at the FTGE in July to get the growers' perspective for this post, but received no response.

The CIW's opponents in the region want to paint the Coalition as too radical, but it may be that any demand for higher wages gets counted as radical. I asked Benitez about the CIW's reputation. He responded that the CIW has many allies when it asks for better working conditions. For example, there is a broad support in Florida for better portable toilets in the field, or access to water to prevent dehydration, or food pantries and social services. But, I get the sense that the CIW occupies a more lonely piece of ground when it imagines that farm workers could ever have higher wages.

Further reading:
Tom Philpott, The human cost of industrial tomatoes.

Barry Estabrook, Politics of the plate: Florida's slave trade.

And, for its detailed word portraits of Immokalee's workers, Carlene Thissen, Immokalee's fields of hope.

Photo by Margaret Wilde.

Update (9/9/2009, 5:15 pm): A press release late this afternoon gives a timely update on the Chipotle situation, emphasizing the key challenge of finding a grower to pass along a per-pound premium to the workers. Chipotle has reached an agreement with East Coast Farms, a tomato grower, to pass along the premium. In the past, the CIW has pressed Chipotle, in addition to establishing the extra payment, to also commit in writing to keeping it (so the decision cannot be reversed). The press release says the new program follows months of discussion with the CIW, though it did not say explicitly whether CIW has yet endorsed the program as adequate.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Chipotle is an interesting case in the farm labor battle. Their marketing slogan is: F.W.I. which stands for Food With Integrity. Ironic, I know. Some press releases from the company this summer highlighted their commitment to local procurement and they even landed a news segment with Joel Salatin, the celebrity farmer in the Omnivore's Dilemma. I applaud CIW for pushing companies to truly examine their supply chains and to leverage companies buying power to change the way our food is grown, harvested, and processed.