CRLA is an organization that regularly provides low cost legal assistance to agricultural workers, whom Marsh has seen bring charges against organic farmers for cases of sexual harassment, underpayment, and job safety concerns.
Sometimes the organic label is even used to justify vioutf8g workers rights. In 2003, the California Legislature considered a bill that would ban “stoop labor,” activities like hand-weeding which require working in bent positions that can cause musculoskeletal degeneration. Organic farmers’ associations lobbied against the bill, claiming that pesticide-free agriculture would suffer under such restrictions. Also, although chemical pest-killers are banned from organic farming, some popular natural pesticides like copper and sulfur have been known to cause irritation of the throat, eyes, and respiratory system.
“This is one of the hardest nuts to crack in the sustainable food world,” said Michael Dimock, executive director of Roots of Change, a San Francisco-based foundation that has developed campaign strategies for improving agricultural working conditions. Three years ago, Dimock left his post as chairman at Slow Food USA, at a time when farm labor conditions “were generally not at the top of the list. Slow Food as an organization is just beginning to figure out what it can do in a meaningful way on this issue.”
Roots of Change has found some success in identifying farm labor challenges and possible solutions through a series of worker-grower forums. It has pinpointed immigration reform as one key to progress. Anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of farm workers in California are undocumented, which puts even fair bosses at risk of being prosecuted for employing illegal immigrants.
Many farm owners turn to labor contractors — essentially agricultural temp agencies — to supply field hands. Use of these middle men largely shields the owner from legal responsibility for illegal hiring, but “the bad farm labor contractors cheat workers, take their pay, and risk their health and safety,” Dimock said.
Some Californian farm labor contractors have become notorious for their disregard of minimum wage and other labor standards, taking advantage of workers who are discouraged to seek help for fear of deportation. The role played by irresponsible contractors is one of many issues that can remain unseen by the buyers of food from farms that rely on the inadequate public information available on agricultural working conditions.
WHEN BUSINESS AND LABOR COLLABORATE
Food management company Bon Appetit in Palo Alto has built a good reputation as a sustainable company, buying its produce and other foodstuffs as locally and organically as possible. “I’ve learned a lot working here,” said Jon Hall, head chef of Bon Appetit’s University of San Francisco cafeteria. “In other kitchens, if you can get something for five cents a pound cheaper, that’s what you buy. If I did that here, people would notice. [My bosses at Bon Appetit] would say, ‘Why’d you buy that?’ ”
But when Bon Appetit executives decided to take on the issue of worker treatment on the farms that supplied their food, they found it difficult to find reliable information on the subject. “We always felt like there was something there that needed to be done and change that needed to take place,” said vice president Maisie Greenwalt. “But we didn’t know who to talk to.”
Her cue to act came from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group from Immokalee County, Fla. The farm workers’ organization brought nationwide publicity to the slavery-like conditions in the area’s tomato fields. Greenwalt accompanied the group on an information-gathering trip to Immokalee and saw firsthand the places where recent immigrants were held to work against their will, living in squalor and being paid little as $20 a week.
Greenwalt saw the travesty as a wake-up call.
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