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Farmworkers Fight Wendy’s, the ‘Last Holdout’ on Fair Food

5:29 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

An oversized puppet of the Wendy's mascot, provided by the People's Puppets of Occupy Wall Street, took part in silent street theater to convince the fast food giant to sign onto the Fast Food campaign. (Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

Originally posted at In These Times.

While rain pattered gently on the concrete steps of Manhattan’s Union Square last Saturday, a group of workers were giving the assembled crowd a tour of the sun-scorched fields of Florida’s tomato farms. The performers had turned the urban square into a stage for a street theater performance, depicting backbreaking labor and tussles with industry goons emblazoned with corporate food brand logos.

By dramatizing a farm scene amid the bustle of Greenwich Village, Chelsea and the surrounding neighborhoods, the activists of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers highlighted the connection between farmworkers’ daily struggles and the villain of the drama: Wendy’s restaurants, which are the primary target of the group’s Fair Food campaign for decent labor standards in an industry built on modern-day serfdom.

The Union Square rally-–featuring a brass band adorned with Wendy’s trademark red pigtails and tomato-shaped placards proclaiming “Justice” and “Derechos” for farmworkers–-was part of a nationwide series of Fair Food demonstrations that are helping bridge the conceptual gap between food consumerism and farm labor, a sector replete with poverty wages and brutally exploitative conditions in the fields. The Coalition has been campaigning for months to push Wendy’s and theFlorida supermarket giant Publix to sign a Fair Food agreement like the agreements brands like Chipotle and Trader Joe’s have already signed.

The Fair Food Program mandates about an additional penny in wages for each pound of tomatoes picked by Florida workers. That seemingly trivial amount, when multiplied by the massive scale of tomato agriculture, adds up to a meaningful difference in the lives of thousands of farmworkers who typically lack a living wage and basic labor protections: Since January 2011, the penny-per-pound premium has put some $10 million in their pockets, which could mean a raise of more than 60 percent for some low-wage laborers.

CIW activist Oscar Otzoy told Working In These Times in Spanish that, by spreading the word through rallies across the country, “We take action directly against the corporations that are responsible for the conditions that we’re facing. Because in the market context that exists, it’s these big companies that profit the most from the work that we as farmworkers are doing. And as they continue profiting, we continue facing the conditions that have existed for so long.”

Otzoy, who has been working in the United States for seven years, noted that although immigrant workers are at the center of their campaign, the exploitative conditions have affected all farmworkers–those with and without papers and even U.S. citizens, because the production structure is inherently exploitative. “Our goal with this program is to get to a day when everyone, regardless of their status, is treated with dignity and respect on the job,” he said.

To prevent abuses like wage theft and forced labor, the Fair Food Program sets a broad code of conduct that ensures compliance with labor laws, “including zero tolerance for forced labor and systemic child labor,” a binding commitment to an auditing process for growers, and a system for workers to file complaints against employers. The program also deploys health and safety monitors to help protect workers from the many hazards lurking in hot, pesticide-laden fields.

The agreement is anchored by the 2010 commitment by Florida’s major growers’ association, Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, representing about 90 percent of the state’s producers. Since then, the Coalition’s program has attracted massive support from consumers, community groups and upscale foodies, and pressured numerous industry purchasers to sign on. The Coalition’s unique, worker-led organizing model fuses consumer education and outreach with grassroots labor mobilization, and in the process reveals interlinked systems of consumption and production. In effect, their movement envisions “food justice” as structural change within a massively consolidated industry.

Wendy’s is seen as the “last holdout” among major fast food chains. However, advocates notethat, ironically, CEO Emil Brolick was something of a fast-food pioneer in 2005, when the company he led then, Taco Bell, became the first corporate buyer to sign the Fair Food Agreement.

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Farmworkers Dig Into the New ‘Blue Card’ Plan

1:03 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

A child rallies in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Tampa, Fla., highlighting undocumented farm workers' critical role in food production. (National Farm Worker Ministry / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Last week, immigrants’ rights groups finally got the papers they’ve been waiting for, an 844-page whopper of a bill that attempts to “fix” the immigration system by promising a little bit to everyone: businesses get workers, workers get jobs and millions of undocumented people get an opportunity to gain citizenship.

One section of the bill sums up the political calculus underlying the legislation: In the plan to overhaul the guestworker system on U.S. farms—the seedbed of the oldest and roughest forms of migrant labor—we can see the strained balance between the interests of profit and the interests of people in determining who gets to become “American.”

Under the current legislative proposal, undocumented farmworkers would receive a new kind of labor visa—called a “Blue Card”—which would enable them to work legally with certain minimum wage guarantees and federal entitlements, like workers’ compensation. These visas, capped at 112,000 annually (a fraction of the undocumented farmworker population of roughly 500,000 to 900,000) would also grant “portability” to workers—i.e., autonomy to switch employers so they’re not chained to a single workplace.

There are additional provisions to protect workers who report labor violations and to make it easier for them to qualify for immigration relief as victims of crime if they’ve been abused or exploited. International labor recruitment—the use of private “middle man” agencies to arrange work visas and job placements—would be more tightly regulated, closing some of the loopholes in the current system that allow recruiters to saddle migrants with exorbitant fees or tie them to abusive, unregulated employers. And the centerpiece of the plan is the “path to citizenship,” which would theoretically allow immigrant workers who are currently undocumented to “legalize.”

But the path to citizenship is fraught with some impossibly high hurdles: The process to gain permanent residency could take about 10 years (the bill provides a shorter timeframe for farmworkers, who are viewed as a special labor category because of their role in the food production system), and an even longer wait to officially naturalize. Activists fear that the various eligibility requirements, from background checks to heavy fees, may end up pricing hundreds of thousands of people out of a green card.

Daniel Sheehan, executive director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), tells In These Times via email that the legalization process might prove prohibitively costly for farmworkers in particular. “Because they are often paid poverty wages and suffer wage theft and other abuses, they may not be able to pay high fines required to secure citizenship,” he says.

Additionally, labor activists note that even if they’re granted legal status, immigrants will continue to face draconian restrictions on public health care benefits, which bar access to Medicaid programs for their first several years of legal residency.

In other words, many migrant farmworkers would have a right to collect a paycheck but lack the right to basic medical care, even when their job gives them a repetitive stress injury or poisons them with pesticide sprays.

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Pesticide Threat Looms Large Over Farmworker Families

3:58 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Among agricultural workers such as these fruit pickers in Oxnard, Calif., birth defects and cancers are alarmingly high. (Alex E. Proimos / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

No matter how good your next meal tastes, it’s likely it made society ill.

new analysis by the Pesticide Action Network North America (PAN) draws a disturbing connection between pesticides in our food system and serious health problems among women and children. The report reviews empirical research linking agricultural chemicals to birth defects, neurological disorders, childhood cancers and reproductive problems.

Some of these chemicals make their way into the foods we eat, but they are more acutely concentrated in the environments surrounding farmlands. Children in or near farming areas can be exposed through myriad channels, from contaminated soil to the air in playgrounds.

But children in farmworker communities are especially at risk. While the report confirms the growing public concerns about health risks permeating our food chain, it also shows how socioeconomic inequalities can shovel many of the worst effects onto exploited, impoverished workers.

There’s been much public debate over the importance of organic produce, sustainable farming and regulating genetically modified foods–usually spurred by concerns over consumer health or animal rights. We hear less about the safety concerns that affect the workers who handle our fruits and vegetables before anyone else. For many Latino migrant workers, there’s no equivalent of a comprehensive safety label–no option to avoid the ubiquitous poisons in the field. Many worry that to complain about working conditions would mean being fired. Others simply–and quite reasonably–have little faith in the anemic government regulatory systems. Read the rest of this entry →

HIV Risks Stalk Migrant Farmworker Communities

5:43 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: Shiho Fukada, Coalition of Immokalee Workers (

Originally posted on In These Times

Last month public health advocates and researchers from around the world convened at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. to discuss the state of the crisis. But many of the communities most affected were not in the room. Some, like sex workers, were explicitly barred from entering the country. Others were excluded by their economic and political circumstances. Far from the conference, the country’s farms are quietly stalked by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but struggling migrant farmworkers may not realize they’re at risk until it’s too late.

HIV is one of a myriad of health issues facing migrant farmworkers, but it’s unique in that so little is known about the scope of the problem. Farmworkers are typically cut off from regular social welfare programs and lack insurance, and there are deep gaps in research about HIV prevalence in this population.

Access to healthcare is virtually out of reach for workers tied down by systemic exploitation. The most marginalized farmworkers, the vast majority of them Latino, face high risks of job-related illnesses and injury, abusive working conditions and, frequently, sexual violence against women.

The most recent research that focuses specifically on farmworkers and HIV is alarming, but sparse. A Centers for Disease Control investigation of about 300 farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, (an area notorious for labor exploitation on tomato farming operations), found a prevalence rate of 5 percent. Other studies have found rates ranging from less than half a percent to 13 percent. Overall, the new HIV infection rates for Latino men and women are especially high compared to those for the white population. The bottom line is that there is a dire need for more in-depth research. Read the rest of this entry →

Child Labor and Agribusiness Churn Washington’s Food Fight

10:13 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: Human Rights Watch

Cross-posted from In these Times

For a moment in Washington, it seemed like the White House was finally getting serious about reforming the agricultural labor system, with a common sense rule about preventing harm to child workers. But under pressure from the agribusiness lobby, the administration appears to have retreated from an initiative to tighten protection for childrens’ safety and health in agricultural jobs.

As we’ve reported previously, the move was seen by labor and child rights groups as a shameless pander to anti-regulatory forces in Washington. Activists have for years reported on the systematic exploitation of children on farms. Last year many hoped the Labor Department would finally respond to alarming injury and death rates by curbing the most hazardous forms of agricultural work for kids under 16, including restrictions on high-risk work in tobacco production, and limiting dangerous tasks involving certain farm equipment and animals.

Then advocates were distressed when the proposed reforms were held up under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget, the administration’s gatekeeper for regulatory proposals. The final affront came in April when the Labor Department announced that it was pulling the proposal in response to opposition from producers.

While the new rules would have explicitly exempted family farms, critics painted the measure as an assault on the rural way of life, glossing over the need to shield kids, many from migrant families, from the day-to-day brutality of industrial farm labor. The administration not only recycled these whitewashed arguments, but even scrubbed its own website of information explaining the proposal, according to the Pump Handle.

Actually, the migrant children in the fields today, facing severe poverty and limited educational opportunities, starkly represent how far modern industrial farming has drifted from the bygone bucolic ideal of the family farm. Read the rest of this entry →

Citing ‘Tradition,’ Big Ag Fights Reforms for Child Farmworkers

7:26 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Human Rights Watch,

Cross-posted from In These Times.

“[When I was 12] they gave me my first knife. Week after week I was cutting myself. Every week I had a new scar. My hands have a lot of stories.”

–17-year-old boy who started working at age 11 in Michigan (Human Rights Watch)

America’s farm workers have always had it tough, toiling for endless hours in the fields under brutal conditions. But those workers do benefit from a unique income subsidy in the country’s industrial farming system: children.

In every region of the country, bountiful harvests are regularly gathered by the tender hands of child poverty: several hundred thousand kids work on farms, often just to help their families survive. Those children who deliver crisp peppers and sweet grapes to the mouths of other kids every day represent the devastating social toll of the dysfunctional food industry.

The Child Labor Coalition, which advocates for the rights of exploited children around the world, documents a cornupcopia of abuses in the backyard of a global superpower:

•  More children die in agriculture than in any other industry.

•  According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), between 1995 and 2002, an estimated 907 youth died on American farms—that’s well over 100 preventable deaths of youth per year.

•  In 2011, 12 of the 16 children under the age of 16 who suffered fatal occupational injuries worked in crop production, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

•  When you include older children, more than half of all workers under age 18 who died from work-related injuries worked in crop production.

Advocates have for months been pressing the Labor Department to finalize a rule change that would help shield child farm workers from some of the most severe occupational hazards, such as handling pesticides and dangerous farm equipment, and would beef up protections for workers under age 16 (currently, children as young as 12 can legally work on farms, thanks to a loophole in federal labor law, and many younger ones have worked illegally, according to recent reports).

The reforms would largely impact youth in the migrant communities that fuel the agricultural labor force, filled with poor and Latino workers who are extremely vulnerable to abuse. Read the rest of this entry →

Banana Republic Legacy Thrives in Today’s Latin America

6:25 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: STITCH via Labor Is Not a Commodity (

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The term “banana republic” has become a cliche to describe economic imperialism throughout history, but the legacy of colonialism persists in Latin America today. The tradition of predatory capitalism echoed in the recent death of Miguel Angel González Ramírez, a member of the Izabal banana workers’ union SITRABI in Guatemala.

According to the International Trade Union Confederation, the unionist was “shot several times whilst carrying his young child in his arms.” This seems to be another casualty in a labor battle between labor and corporateers who would rather see workers shed blood than be paid fair wages.

The ITUC has demanded an official investigation, noting that in the past year several unionists have been killed or targeted with threats. Last October, SITRABI member Pablino Yaque Cervantes was shot by an unidentified attacker, according to U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (US LEAP).

Manuela Chávez of the ITUC’s Department of Human and Trade Union Rights told In these Times, “Freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively have been endangered by a very high anti-union repression for years,” adding that the threats to unionists are aggravated by government inaction. Read the rest of this entry →

On Hostile Ground, America’s Guestworkers Seek Justice

7:19 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Photo courtesy National Guestworker Alliance)

Cross-posted from In These Times

The debate around immigration in Washington brings the same smoke and mirrors each election cycle: anti-immigrant slogans about “securing the border” flashing alongside craftily worded policies to sustain the flow of cheap labor, legal or not. Politicians seem to want it both ways: keeping immigrants locked into a brutal underground workforce, while using mass deportation and constant abuse to exclude them from society.

One popular “compromise” policy on immigration, the “guestworker model,” perfectly weds the ideas of “free markets” and forced labor. For many years, special visa programs have allowed employers to hire temporary foreign labor at paltry wages with minimal oversight. It would be the ultimate captive labor force, except a few things get in the way–mainly that even these workers have some rights under the law, plus indentured servitude looks terribly out-of-date these days, even with Washington’s stamp of approval.

In recent months, young workers channeled into Hershey factory jobs under the J-1 visa “student exchange” program have protested against cruel, coercive working conditions.  Advocates have also called attention to exploited workers under the H2-B program, which places tens of thousands of temporary workers in trades like hotel services and landscaping. For years, various investigations and lawsuits have exposed systematic abuses of seasonal farmworkers in the H2-A program, who toil in conditions often akin to slavery.

The federal government has made some small steps toward addressing guestworker exploitation . As we’ve reported before, reforms to the J-1 program are apparently underway to rein in the abuse and trafficking of youth.

New revisions to the H2-B rules would tighten oversight of bosses to prevent them from skirting wage and hour laws and from retaliating against workers who file complaints. Employers would also have disclose the use of foreign recruitment services, which are known around the world for facilitating debt bondage and human trafficking networks. Read the rest of this entry →

Despite New Rule on Livestock Antibiotics, Infection Risks Still Plague Workers, Communities

11:33 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: USDA

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The Obama administration just made a move toward curbing one of the most toxic aspects of our food system, with a new Food and Drug Administration regulation on certain antibiotics used in livestock.

Still, massive amounts of medicine will continue to circulate through our food system. The environmental presence of these drugs underscores how deeply interconnected food production, public health, and workplace safety are, and how comprehensively our regulatory system has failed.

The new order restricts the “extra-label” or nonstandard uses of cephalosporins, which, according to the New York Times, “are among the most common antibiotics prescribed to treat pneumonia, strep throat, and skin and urinary tract infections.” Tightening livestock producers’ antibiotic use is a small sign that FDA is finally responding to scientific evidence of antibiotic-related disease risks. But the underlying question is, what is the stuff doing in our food in the first place? Read the rest of this entry →

Can Educating Consumers Help Make Farm Labor Fair?

7:03 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Trader Joe's rally in NYC organized by Coalition of Immokalee Workers, September 2011 (

Cross-posted from

This summer in California, as legions of migrants culled America’s bounty from sun-scorched fields, Governor Jerry Brown put the right to unionize even further out of their reach. Brown’s decision to veto a controversial bill to provide streamlined card-check voting for farmworkers trying to form unions reflected Brown’s drift to the right since his first term as governor, when he signed the landmark 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act giving farmworkers unprecedented collective-bargaining rights.

Activists expressed outrage, and Brown later proposed more moderate reforms for farm labor rules. But the failure of the campaign for card-check, a voting system that could help union organizers overcome resistance from employers, reflected deeper setbacks in the farmworkers’ movement since César Chávez led grape boycotts that drew thousands into the United Farm Workers union. Forty years later, card-check advocates sought to build public support by linking weak union protections to the tragedy of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a pregnant teen who had died in the sweltering grape fields—a case that echoed what the media and public condemned as America’s “ Harvest of Shame” during the Civil Rights Era. Policymakers’ tepid response today suggests that the industry’s abuses have become even more entrenched in an increasingly corporatized food system, fueled by a ruthlessly exploited migrant labor force.

But while the traditional farm labor movement may have lost ground, other groups have surfaced on the horizon to push beyond the bounds of traditional unions, on and off the farm. Read the rest of this entry →