Our Food System Is Built on Exploitation. Now Farmworkers Are Saying “No More.”

Heather Gies

Members and supporters of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance march with Rosalinda Guillén (L) toward city hall in Bellingham, Washington, October 12, 2018. (Photo: Heather Gies)

For Ros­alin­da Guil­lén, every­thing begins with food — and that means pay­ing close atten­tion to the treat­ment of work­ers at the foun­da­tion of the food system.

Stand­ing recent­ly on the steps of city hall in Belling­ham, Wash­ing­ton, Guil­lén urged local law­mak­ers to defend the rights of undoc­u­ment­ed farm­work­ers liv­ing and work­ing in What­com Coun­ty, home to 1,702 farms sprawled over more than 115,000 acres.

In this city, that claims to be a lib­er­al city, there is ram­pant racial pro­fil­ing,” Guillen, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the food and migrant jus­tice orga­ni­za­tion Com­mu­ni­ty to Com­mu­ni­ty Devel­op­ment (C2C) based in Belling­ham, said into a mega­phone. She slammed a pat­tern of arbi­trary” deten­tion and depor­ta­tion and clear coop­er­a­tion” between local law enforce­ment and fed­er­al immi­gra­tion authorities.

Since ear­ly 2017, Guillen and oth­er local activists have held week­ly protests to urge city coun­cil to pass a sanc­tu­ary city ordi­nance to help pro­tect undoc­u­ment­ed res­i­dents from depor­ta­tion. In August, Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment detained at least 16 peo­ple in Belling­ham — local rights groups claim the num­ber was near­ly 30—fuel­ing calls for a sanc­tu­ary policy.

In the 88th week of C2C’s Dig­ni­ty Vig­ils” call­ing for coun­cilors to make Belling­ham a sanc­tu­ary city, more than 100 rep­re­sen­ta­tives of food and cli­mate jus­tice groups from across the Unit­ed States and a hand­ful of inter­na­tion­al activists — all gath­ered for the nation­al assem­bly of the U.S. Food Sov­er­eign­ty Alliance — joined the protest. Local orga­niz­ers in Belling­ham, tak­ing the lead from farm­work­ers, draw a clear con­nec­tion between migrant jus­tice and food sov­er­eign­ty. For them, as long as the peo­ple work­ing clos­est to food’s roots as farm­work­ers are mis­treat­ed, includ­ing earn­ing wages that don’t even allow them to put meals on their own tables, there’s no way to have dig­ni­fied or just food choic­es up the food sup­ply chain.

Every­body has to eat,” Anto­nio Tovar, inter­im gen­er­al sec­re­tary of the Farm­work­er Asso­ci­a­tion of Flori­da, said to In These Times, under­lin­ing the para­dox” that farm­work­ers often can­not access healthy food. When the deci­sion about what to eat isn’t yours, you have no way to be free.”

Tired of exploitation”

Undoc­u­ment­ed farm­work­ers in the Belling­ham area have won his­toric labor vic­to­ries in recent years. In 2013, farm­work­ers formed a union, Famil­ias Unidas por la Jus­ti­cia, to fight for bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions at Saku­ma Broth­ers Farm in Burling­ton, Wash­ing­ton. After near­ly four years of walk­outs and boy­cotts, the union secured a land­mark con­tract guar­an­tee­ing berry har­vesters a min­i­mum hourly rate of $15. In the process, the union also won paid 10 minute breaks for piece­work farm­work­ers through a law­suit against Saku­ma in Washington’s Supreme Court.

Ben­i­to, a found­ing mem­ber of Famil­ias Unidas and part of its lead­er­ship com­mit­tee, said he now earns about dou­ble the pay for the same work — 10 to 12 hour days, sev­en days a week — as a result of union orga­niz­ing. Many work rules are chang­ing,” he told In These Times.

The union also suc­cess­ful­ly blocked Sakuma’s appli­ca­tion to bring farm­work­ers through the H‑2A Tem­po­rary Agri­cul­tur­al Work­ers visa pro­gram by col­lect­ing farm­work­ers’ sig­na­tures to dis­prove the company’s claims of labor short­ages in and around Wash­ing­ton state, Ramón Tor­res, pres­i­dent of Famil­ias Unidas, told In These Times. He argued that the fact that migrants with H‑2A visas aren’t well informed of their rights enables employ­ers to enslave” work­ers. The oth­er thing is that they use [H‑2A] to break our union, strikes, or move­ments,” Tor­res added.

Build­ing on the union’s suc­cess, Tor­res and three oth­er mem­bers of Famil­ias Unidas launched a farm­work­er-owned coop­er­a­tive last year with a vision of cre­at­ing bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, auton­o­my, and ade­quate access to healthy food for farmworkers.

We have to go ask for [food] stamps. We have to go to food banks. And it’s not just,” Tor­res said. A farm­work­er who picks water­mel­ons in the end can’t buy the water­mel­on because he doesn’t earn a fair salary to afford it.”

At the Belling­ham Food Bank, project coor­di­na­tor Max Mor­ange told In These Times that farm­work­ers are among the Food Bank’s clients, though the orga­ni­za­tion does not col­lect any demo­graph­ic data. And although iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is not required and indi­vid­u­als can access the food bank regard­less of immi­gra­tion sta­tus, Mor­ange said he has observed a cor­re­la­tion between fear and uncer­tain­ty” fueled by immi­gra­tion enforce­ment in the com­mu­ni­ty and who he sees walk through the food bank doors.

The Food Bank and oth­er local part­ners are look­ing to bet­ter sup­port the undoc­u­ment­ed com­mu­ni­ty through out­reach ini­tia­tives, while the Food Bank strives to become a known safe place” for his­tor­i­cal­ly mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, Mor­ange said. 

For Tor­res, Famil­ias Unidas’ work­er-owned coop­er­a­tive, called Tier­ra y Lib­er­tad, is a first step toward tack­ling farm­work­er food inse­cu­ri­ty at the root. Pro­tect­ing farm­work­ers from expo­sure to tox­ic pes­ti­cides by plant­i­ng organ­ic crops and keep­ing chil­dren study­ing instead of toil­ing in the fields at young ages are also big moti­vat­ing fac­tors, he said.

Tier­ra y Lib­er­tad already grows four acres of organ­ic straw­ber­ries and 20 acres of blue­ber­ries on rent­ed fields, and the coop­er­a­tive is look­ing to pur­chase farm­land to increase work­ers’ con­trol over pro­duc­tion. Accord­ing to Tor­res, the long-term goal is to cre­ate a net­work of coop­er­a­tives that fos­ter mutu­al sup­port among farm­work­ers and show that work­er-owned alter­na­tives are possible.

Every­thing we are doing is to help farm­work­ers,” Tor­res said. We’re tired of so much exploitation.”

Every­thing cir­cles around food” 

For Guillen, a sea­soned farm­work­er rights orga­niz­er who began work­ing in the fields in Washington’s Skag­it Coun­ty at the age of 10, achiev­ing food sov­er­eign­ty in the U.S. would mean being able to sit down to eat know­ing that nei­ther human beings nor the envi­ron­ment suf­fered to pro­duce the food on the plate. Every­thing cir­cles around food, and what peo­ple eat, and how food is pro­duced, and how food is gov­erned, and what poli­cies are set in the pro­duc­tion and mar­ket­ing of food,” she said to the crowd out­side Belling­ham city hall.

The U.S. Food Sov­er­eign­ty Alliance (USF­SA), a coali­tion of nation­al, region­al, and local food, cli­mate and immi­grant jus­tice groups from across the Unit­ed States, is also mak­ing the link between food and farm­work­er rights. At its nation­al assem­bly in Belling­ham from Octo­ber 12 through 15, the USF­SA iden­ti­fied farm­work­er rights as a top con­cern along with oth­er pri­or­i­ties such as agroe­col­o­gy, land and water rights, polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion, as well as region­al issues like fac­to­ry farms — known as con­cen­trat­ed ani­mal feed­ing oper­a­tions (CAFOs) — in the midwest.

The con­cept of food sov­er­eign­ty express­es the right of peo­ples and com­mu­ni­ties to self-deter­mine how food is pro­duced, dis­trib­uted, and con­sumed. The move­ment for food sov­er­eign­ty pro­pos­es small-scale, sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture as the solu­tion to food and cli­mate crises, and calls for trans­form­ing the food sys­tem by putting deci­sion-mak­ing con­trol in the hands of peo­ple who pro­duce food.

The inter­na­tion­al social move­ment La Via Campesina, rep­re­sent­ing mil­lions of peas­ants and small­hold­er farm­ers around the world, for­mal­ized and pop­u­lar­ized the term as an alter­na­tive to mar­ket-based approach­es, such as food secu­ri­ty, that fail to see hunger as a struc­tur­al prob­lem stem­ming from food being made a commodity.

The Farm­work­er Asso­ci­a­tion of Flori­da is putting the food sov­er­eign­ty vision into action through Campesino Gar­dens — com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens focused on pro­vid­ing for local farm­work­ers — where fam­i­lies can grow and har­vest healthy food. Farm­work­ers and their fam­i­lies tend to the gar­dens in their spare time after a long week in the fields, and oth­er vol­un­teers, such as stu­dents, pro­vide extra support.

Unlike the pes­ti­cide-inten­sive crops many farm­work­ers pro­duce, the Campesino Gar­dens grow food using sus­tain­able, agroe­co­log­i­cal prac­tices. A grow­ing body of sci­en­tif­ic research links pes­ti­cides to chron­ic health prob­lems, and the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion has stat­ed that the key ingre­di­ent in Monsanto’s RoundUp her­bi­cide prob­a­bly” caus­es can­cer. The Farm­work­er Asso­ci­a­tion of Flori­da has been orga­niz­ing for years to pro­tect farm­work­ers from pes­ti­cide expo­sure, and the Campesino Gar­dens are a small step toward build­ing an alternative.

What we would like to see at least is that each fam­i­ly can pro­duce enough food to feed them­selves for a good part of the year,” Tovar of the Farm­work­er Asso­ci­a­tion of Flori­da explained. He not­ed that farm­ing sea­sons also impact access to fresh food, adding: We need to find a way to make our com­mu­ni­ties sov­er­eign by look­ing for alter­na­tive chan­nels of distribution.”

Far­ther up the food sup­ply chain, the trend of food inse­cu­ri­ty among food work­ers con­tin­ues in the restau­rant indus­try. For Jonathan Roberts, a mem­ber of the Detroit Food Pol­i­cy Coun­cil who has orga­nized restau­rant work­ers, the prob­lem under­lines why inte­grat­ing labor con­cerns into con­ver­sa­tions about food is essential.

We mys­ti­fy the rela­tion­ship between peo­ple and food. Food doesn’t exist with­out agri­cul­tur­al labor; it doesn’t exist with­out serv­ing and pro­cess­ing and trans­porta­tion,” he told In These Times, stress­ing that food sov­er­eign­ty is a use­ful polit­i­cal frame­work since it shines a light on where food comes from and how it is produced.

Food sov­er­eign­ty can’t exist when we have over­pro­duc­tion and at the same time food work­ers — like servers and bar­tenders and cooks — who can’t even afford the food that they are prepar­ing and serv­ing to cus­tomers,” Roberts added. That con­tra­dic­tion in and of itself is enough to think about why food sov­er­eign­ty demands a labor analysis.”

Being able to feed ourselves”

The prob­lems that food sov­er­eign­ty aims to solve aren’t lim­it­ed to agri­cul­ture. Accord­ing to Niaz Dor­ry, direc­tor of the North­west Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA) and the Nation­al Fam­i­ly Farm Coali­tion (NFFC), indus­tri­al fish­ing pos­es sim­i­lar chal­lenges to fish­work­ers and tra­di­tion­al­ly fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties as indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture does to farm­work­ers and farm­ers, includ­ing food insecurity.

There are peo­ple who fish and peo­ple who farm who for all intents and pur­pos­es are own­ers of their busi­ness­es and they can’t afford to eat their own food,” she said, reflect­ing on sto­ries heard dur­ing recent vis­its to fish­ing and farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try as part of the Amer­i­ca the Boun­ti­ful tour, a joint project between the NAMA and the Nation­al Fam­i­ly Farm Coalition. 

Accord­ing to NAMA, fish­eries are fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture in becom­ing a more cor­po­rate and extrac­tive indus­try. But orga­niz­ers are also tak­ing cues from his­toric farm­work­er strug­gles to fight for food and work­er jus­tice in fish­eries, too. The coali­tion Pes­can­do Jus­ti­cia, for exam­ple, an ini­tia­tive of the Cen­tro Comu­ni­tario de Tra­ba­jadores in New Bed­ford, Mass., sup­ports orga­niz­ing among fish and seafood workers.

For Dor­ry, trans­form­ing the food sys­tem must focus on eco­nom­ic empow­er­ment that enables fish­ers and food pro­duc­ers to earn fair prices based on their costs of pro­duc­tion, not glob­al economies of scale.

[Food sov­er­eign­ty] for us is about being able to feed our­selves as com­mu­ni­ties of farm­ers, fish­er­man and fish­work­ers and feed our­selves cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate food,” Dor­ry said, adding that for pro­duc­ing com­mu­ni­ties, this right also implies hav­ing access to enabling resources. For farm­ers that means, seed, land, water; for fish­er­men it means work­ing water­fronts, access to fish­ing rights, and clean water.”

Back in Belling­ham, Famil­ias Unidas and its coop­er­a­tive, Tier­ra y Lib­er­tad, pro­vide one exam­ple to fol­low of fight­ing to put pro­duc­tive resources in the hands of those at the heart of the food sys­tem. Tor­res of Famil­ias Unidas doesn’t use the term food sov­er­eign­ty, but for him the link between farm­work­er jus­tice and food move­ments is still a given.

[Peo­ple] can’t see the faces of the work­ers. They can’t see if there is exploita­tion, if work­ers are gain­ing ade­quate wages, if chil­dren are work­ing,” he said, adding that he is sur­prised when he hears peo­ple who eat veg­e­tar­i­an, for exam­ple, but aren’t aware of farm­work­er rights.

It’s very impor­tant for every­one who is work­ing in any­thing relat­ed to food to see the treat­ment of the work­ers,” he con­tin­ued. Because that’s where it all starts.”

Heather Gies is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten on human rights, social move­ments and envi­ron­men­tal issues for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, In These Times and Nation­al Geo­graph­ic. Fol­low her on twit­ter @HeatherGies.
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