As the national debate about refugees and immigration roils, we at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) have been reflecting on the history and the modern condition of farm labor in this country, and on our role as advocates for a vibrant and equitable local food system.
We work closely with farm owners here in the Valley, and we know that many of them share our deep dissatisfaction with our farm labor system and the dialogue that surrounds it.
Most of the food in the United States is grown under physically demanding, high risk, unstable, low-paying conditions by immigrants and migrant workers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 72 percent of all farmworkers are foreign-born, and 46 percent are undocumented. Sixty-four percent do not have health insurance, and agricultural work consistently ranks among the most dangerous in the country. The median income is under $17,500.
Our history has led us here. From indentured servitude to slavery to the sharecropping system, the 200 years following European settlement of this land were characterized by bondage, exploitation, and abuse in agricultural work. When World War I led to a labor shortage that threatened our food supply, the first “guest-worker” program brought 70,000 workers from Mexico.
Fifteen years later, as unemployment skyrocketed during the Great Depression, the Mexican Repatriation Program deported an estimated two million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans over a seven year period. An estimated 1.2 million of those deported were citizens of the United States.
Another labor shortage during World War II led to the creation of the Bracero Program in 1942, which brought an average of 200,000 workers per year from Mexico until it was discontinued in 1964.
This legacy of reversals — bringing workers into the country when their labor was needed to feed our citizens, and then forcibly removing them when it was not — has led directly to the current demographics of and political discourse around farmworkers and immigration. Our nation has depended on immigrant farmworkers to fill our tables for generations, while those same workers have been ignored, their contributions belittled, and their presence both reviled and denied.
Modern labor standards, including a federal minimum wage and overtime laws, were first institutionalized through the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act – which entirely exempted farmworkers.
Farmworker activism in the 1950s and 1960s led to many basic protections for agricultural workers, but they are still ineligible for overtime pay and exempted from federal laws protecting workers’ right to unionize.
At CISA, we talk often about the externalized costs of our current international food system. The cost of food to consumers is at an all-time low, and that sounds like great news in a nation where 15 percent of people don’t have enough to eat and many more are struggling. But the reality is that these low food prices are possible because of costs that are borne elsewhere, most visible in environmentally damaging growing practices and in the exploitation of a largely immigrant, largely non-English-speaking, disempowered agricultural labor force.
Here in Massachusetts, there’s not much data on the makeup of the state’s agricultural workforce or on their working conditions, although we do know that much of our food is grown by immigrant workers. Farms here are smaller and more diversified than the national norm, which can mean more variation in tasks and more personal relationships between owners and workers, but that doesn’t mean that Massachusetts farms function completely outside the larger system.
Massachusetts labor laws are more favorable than federal law to farmworkers, including limited rights to unionize, although our state agricultural minimum wage still lags behind the state minimum wage by $3 an hour. We know that many farm owners here are acutely aware of the tension between wanting to pay a fair wage to their employees, and needing to compete on price in a system that values low food prices at the expense of the workers in the field.
We do not support this system, which depends on the labor of people who are underpaid, overworked, disenfranchised and vilified. We also do not support policies that threaten to undermine this deeply flawed system by cracking down on undocumented workers, which would separate families, destroy the lives of hard-working people, destabilize farm businesses, and threaten our nation’s food supply.
Instead, we envision and continue to fight for a system where farm viability isn’t at odds with equitable pay and good working conditions.
These complex, deeply entrenched issues will not be resolved with simplistic solutions, and we are committed to working with farm owners, farmworkers and the organizations that represent them, and residents of our region to increase equity, fairness, and respect for all members of our community.
Claire Morenon is the communications manager and Philip Korman is the executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield.