The Past Decade Has Brought a Sea Change in Food and Farm Labor

A panel of experts discuss the rapid changes in the world of food labor—from the 'Fight for $15' and the Fair Food Program, to the rise of #metoo in the fields.



Perhaps more than any other aspect of the U.S. food system, the past 10 years has brought major changes to the workers who grow, harvest, prepare, and serve the food we eat. The highlights include the first federal bill to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, an ongoing national conversation about—and actions taken to stop—sexual harassment and forced labor in the workplace, as well as major commitments among cities, school districts, and companies around the nation to purchase and serve healthier, more equitable foods.

There are still countless workers and workplaces that have not achieved these benefits yet, and many more workers no doubt find themselves under even greater threat amidst a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and policies, such as the nearly 700 people arrested in the recent ICE raids on seven poultry processing facilities in MississippiBut to people and organizations working to improve the lives of food and farmworkers, the trend over the past 10 years—and particularly over the past three—has been toward greater awareness of, and advocacy for, justice in food labor.

To mark Civil Eats’ 10th anniversary, we’ve been conducting a series of roundtable discussions in an effort to take an in-depth look at many of the most important topics we’ve covered since 2009. In the conversation below, we invited four experts to weigh in on the issues surrounding labor.

Gerardo Reyes Chávez is a leader of the worker-based human rights organization the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, founded in Florida, which mobilizes communities around the country to advocate for the rights of exploited workers. Saru Jayaraman co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), an organization that advocates for fair wages and working conditions for America’s restaurant workforce. She also directs the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley. Jose Oliva serves as co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of worker-based organizations that fight to improve wages and working conditions for people all along the food chain, from planters to harvesters to packers to servers, and Rosalinda Guillen is a farmworker justice leader and founder of Community to Community Development, a women-led, grassroots organization in Bellingham, Washington, working for immigration reform and farmworker rights.

Civil Eats’ editor-in-chief, Naomi Starkman, and contributing editor Twilight Greenaway facilitated the wide-ranging discussion. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How have you seen the food and farming labor industry change over the last decade? What were some of the biggest issues that existed a decade ago and what are they now?

Gerardo Reyes Chávez

Gerardo Reyes Chávez

Gerardo Reyes Chávez: Ten years ago, we were still pushing growers to join the Fair Food Program (FFP), and we were asking to implement a code of conduct that was crafted by workers themselves. The FFP brings either market consequences or market incentives, depending on who you are and how you choose to see it.

Before the program, abuses that were commonly found in our work ranged from stagnant wages (40 to 45 cents for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes—workers earned this same wage for over three decades) to sexual harassment and assault among farmworker women to situations of modern-day slavery. [In the case of the latter,] our work with the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and the DOJ (Department of Justice) has resulted in freedom for more than 400 workers and imprisonment of more than 15 bosses, some of whom held workers at gunpoint.

Just to give you a sense, one of the last cases that we were working to resolve was a case that took place in Immokalee, Florida. Workers were forced to sleep inside a cargo truck, they were then locked in with a padlock, and sometimes their bosses would even [use chains] just to make an example for the rest of the crew. If they needed to use the bathroom, they would have to go in the same space where they were sleeping. That is how painful and humiliating it can be in the most extreme cases.

When you take into account the exploitative nature of agriculture and the fact that people are extremely poor, the workers would have to ask themselves: Do I try to defend myself and try to protect my dignity, knowing that I’m going to be fired—and lose the ability to put food on the table for my kids—or do I become a victim of violence?

What the program has done is basically flip that question, erase it, by protecting workers. Fourteen corporations that are now part of the Fair Food Program, and it now places the question in the world of growers who have to ask themselves: Do I protect this supervisor or this crew leader, who is sexually harassing women or threatening workers with violence, just because he has always represented a steady supply of workers? Do I protect this person knowing that when I am uncovered, I’m putting at risk my entire operation?

To be able to use a complaint mechanism that allows workers to identify all the problems that they are facing, knowing that they are not going to receive negative consequences for speaking up, has led to the identification of more than 10,000 problems and around 2,300 complaints—ranging from sexual harassment to violence in the fields—in the entire industry since 2011. And the nature of the complaints has changed dramatically over time because the industry has entered a transformation like it has never seen before.

We have been able to eliminate sexual assault and slavery by applying zero tolerance to both. So that’s why we need to expand this by bringing other corporations to be part of the solution.

Saru Jayaraman

Saru Jayaraman

Saru Jayaraman: I’m going to talk specifically about the restaurant industry, which is 13 million out of the 20 million food workers in America. It’s the nation’s largest and fastest-growing private sector employer; one in 10 American workers works in restaurants. But it is the absolute lowest paying employer in the U.S. And over the last 20 years, we have been conducting surveys of tens of thousands of workers, and over and over again the top issues are always their wages, their benefits, and their mobility.

A decade ago, their wages were not even in the conversation. And these issues were seen as distinct from one another. What we’ve been able to do is raise their wages in states all over the country and draw the connection between their wages and these issues of discrimination and harassment.

Restaurants are one of the lowest-paid industries in the U.S. because of the money, power, and influence of a trade lobby called the National Restaurant Association (we call it the other NRA). It represents the chains, and it’s been around since the emancipation of slavery, when it first demanded the right to hire newly freed slaves, not pay them anything, and let them live on customer tips. And that idea became law in 1938.

When we got the right to a minimum wage [in 1938], tipped workers were left with a zero dollars an hour minimum wage as long as tips brought them to the full minimum wage. And we went from zero in 1938 to $2.13 cents an hour, the current federal minimum wage for tipped workers. Over the last decade we’ve been able to raise that wage in some states and cities, and get rid of it in others. We’ve also drawn the distinct connection between the fact that the female workforce is earning $2.13 an hour and also have the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry.

When states and cities raise the [tipped minimum] wage, they’ve cut harassment pretty dramatically, and that has led to the U.S. House of Representatives passing the Raise the Wage Act, which we fought for and won over the incredible opposition of the National Restaurant Association. It proposes raising the wage to $15 an hour and fully eliminating the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. When it passed in July, it was the first time since emancipation that either house of Congress has moved to eliminate the sub-minimum wage. It was a very historic day, and it means we are on a pathway to fully eliminate this two-tiered wage system over the next decade.

Rosalinda Guillen

Rosalinda Guillen

Rosalinda Guillen: In Washington state, the last 10 years have been really pivotal for the farmworker movement. The biggest issue that has been affecting our farmworker families has been the influx and growth of the federal guest worker [H-2A] program. The agricultural industry here is largely made up of apples, cherries, and other tree fruit, and it is a very powerful political player in the state, along with a farm labor contractor called the Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA).

Dan Fazio [the executive director of WAFLA] took it upon himself to spearhead the growth of the H-2A a program, which we believe is a legal, quasi-slave labor program for the agricultural industry. The agricultural industry was founded on slavery in this country, and I think corporate agriculture continues to have that mentality, and that is the reason that it’s always really difficult for farmworkers to organize.

Our work [with Community to Community Development] focused on identifying leaders in the farmworker community who have innovative vision and are ready to take leadership in having a broad organizational capacity to influence decisions in agriculture in Washington state. [We have worked at] building a political environment where farmworkers would be considered stakeholders in food system processes in the state.

Community to Community has spent the last six years supporting a group of farmworkers that went on strike at Sakuma farms of 2013. The workers eventually organized themselves with our support to form an independent union that has a growing political voice and power in the state of Washington. And the collective bargaining agreement that eventually came out of this independent union forming has just been renegotiated for the third time this season. And each time it has gotten progressively better.

The minimum wage at this company is $15 an hour, plus the additional piece rate wage that is negotiated based on the quality and the quantity of the berries. And the farmworker leaders, the committees that the workers elect, actually test the fields prior to the majority of the workers coming in and decide a wage that is fair based on the quality and the quantity of the workers.

These workers have made incredible economic progress and that has raised the wages of all of the other agricultural farms like family farms and corporate farms in the region that pick berries; the wages have gone up to anywhere between $14 and $16 an hour. If growers here want a high-quality, experienced, skilled workforce, [they] need to compete for it.

By exposing some horrific conditions—exploitation and literally slave-like conditions in the H-2A program (we unfortunately had a tragic death of a farm worker in our own county)—we also managed to force the Employment Security Department and other state agencies to pass an historic bill in Washington to provide state oversight of the H-2A program. Community to Community is on the oversight committee, as is the union. We’re the only state that’s actually providing oversight to the federal program.

We hope that this will provide an example and will create more opportunities for local farmworkers to gain their jobs back—because there has been a lot of displacement by the H-2A program. But we also want to guarantee that if workers are brought into Washington state, they don’t come here to be treated in a horrific manner.

Jose Oliva

Jose Oliva

Jose Oliva: We started The Food Chain Worker Alliance in 2009 because we knew that there was this growing awareness in the U.S. around food and that folks were talking about it from very distinct perspectives. They were talking about it from the perspective of food’s impact on the environment vis-a-vis production, and vis-a-vis the waste created; they were talking about animals in the food system and food access, especially in places in urban and rural America. But not a whole lot of people were talking about food workers.

Saru mentioned earlier that restaurant workers are the largest single segment of the food sector, but the entire food sector is 21.5 million workers. That’s the largest employment sector in the U.S by far. It’s bigger than health care. And it’s the fastest-growing sector in the U.S. economy. And if you look at trends over the last 10 years, you’ll see a drawing down of wages to the bottom. That has everything to do with the exploitation of workers, especially of immigrant workers, people of color, and women.

Everyone here has mentioned slavery and the reality that the food and farm sector in the United States is rooted in the legacy of slavery. In order for us to talk about actually creating justice for workers in the food system, you really have to deconstruct racism and look at it from a broader perspective. Based on all of that, we have built a coalition of 32 organizations; they’re local and national organizations that represent approximately 370,000 workers in the U.S. and Canada.

One other thing that is actually proving to be a more serious and more immediate threat than we’d anticipated is the issue of automation and robotics. There’s been this huge amount of investment on the part of major corporations; I’m not just talking about Amazon and Google. I’m talking about GE and Monsanto, too. I’m talking about all the major food and farm corporations investing billions of dollars every year in order to develop robots that are essentially going to replace the workers. In some industries it is more urgent, more immediate than in others, but it’s definitely a trend if you look at the curve over the last 10 years what is ahead in the next 10 years.

Can you talk a little bit about the Fight for 15 and the role it has played in the last decade in the larger discussion of food labor?

Oliva: The Fight for 15 campaign had a huge impact on just being able to win one fair wage recently in the House. If you think about the laws that we’ve passed in this country, they’re rooted in what we as an entire people feel is the right thing morally. And so the Fight for 15 has set the tone; it has created an environment where people could talk freely about the need for livable wages, the need to transcend increasing the minimum wage little by little, by suggesting that could actually rise to a point where it could sustain the life of an individual family.

Guillen: It really did help farmworkers to be able to demand $15 an hour and not be totally laughed off the scene. From the very beginning, workers here asked for $15 an hour. It took three years to get to the point where workers would begin to negotiate, but then it wasn’t like something that was ridiculous anymore. Thanks to everybody that did that on a national level.

Jayaraman: I think it’s totally changed what’s possible on the landscape. It’s been an amazing movement; I think it’s also important to recognize that there have been a lot of movements that have also worked to push and expand the Fight for 15 beyond what it was originally conceived to do. For example, the Fight for 15 in many states left out tipped workers. And it wasn’t until recently that it became inclusive of tipped workers. It has not been the efforts of any one institution but rather many workers in many different sectors pushing to expand what’s possible.

How have immigration policies affected the food and farm labor force over the last 10 years? What type of policies do you want to see moving forward?

Guillen: I think right now is a very difficult political moment for any kind of immigration reform. Whatcom County is in the northwestern-most corner of the country, on the northern border so it’s highly militarized with Border Patrol, Homeland Security agents, FBI, DEA, you name it. And we have rural police departments cooperating with Border Patrol and Homeland Security.

From the day our organization was founded, our fight on immigrant justice has never stopped. It is a constant resistance locally on the ground, to everything that ICE and the Border Patrol is trying to do. We have suffered three major raids in our area, and each time the resistance from the community and the pushback has grown. We’ve worked hard to establish a culture of non-cooperation.

We also have conservative rural elected leaders that have resisted implementing viable sanctuary ordinances. We’ve had a really hard time here locally, and honestly the victories that we’ve had against Border Patrol and ICE have come from direct actions and community resistance. We don’t see this abating at all; it requires so much more grassroots organizing.

We have outlined a platform for what we consider justice in immigration reform [with dozens of other groups] on the Dignity Campaign website. That said, we have groups in Washington state that are fighting for immigration reform, and we did manage to this year pass a statewide bill that would [limit the amount of information that state and local agencies share with federal immigration officials]. That is giving us a framework to be able to protect farmworker families. It also gives us opportunities to file class action lawsuits against state agencies, county agencies, and city agencies that we believe are discriminating against undocumented people.

Oliva: There are definitely heightened threats in a number of different communities. The Foodchain Worker Alliance helped set up a bail fund for food workers who have been detained by ICE or Border Patrol. [As of publishing time, the campaign has raised more than $26,000 for the bail fund] All the money goes directly to families that have been detained. It’s not going to be organizationally used by anybody; it’s going to be passed onto our members, so different members of the team working the lines will be able to access that money to help with bail for their loved ones who have been detained by ICE.

Jayaraman: I have a slightly different perspective; I actually feel hopeful right now, and I know that sounds crazy given the situation, but I feel like on immigration reform—and for people of color more broadly, not just immigrants—things have been really bad for a really long time. And prior to the current moment, immigrant advocates were stuck in a bad compromise situation where frankly the debate was between big business, which wanted cheap labor, and the far right, which wanted to exclude immigrants. And what we really needed to be doing was fighting for full amnesty, full labor rights for all individuals, full dignity and respect for everybody. And I know that many of us were always making that cry. But in terms of who was at the table in Washington and what was actually being discussed, it was never that.

Things that were going on under Obama have been exposed to the public view and of course it’s gotten worse, but it is exposed. And finally there are calls from people in Washington, D.C. to abolish ICE. And there are calls for a wholly different view of people and the system. I think it has needed that kind of shaking up and uplift for a really long time.

And the other thing we’ve needed in terms of the debate is a rejection of all attempts to separate immigrants and other people of color as two kind of distinct classes. The fact that now we are having to come together as all people who are oppressed—and that includes white people as well—to push back on extremism, I hope it will unify us for something greater, for something that we’ve always needed which is dignity, respect and full rights for all people, not a compromise that was just about being good workers and laborers. That’s not who we are; we’re human beings.

What can the average person do to support better labor practices? And what gives you hope for the future?

Jayaraman: I think the new progressive wave that has come into Congress has really helped us win things that we’ve needed, like the bill to raise the minimum wage and fully eliminate the sub-minimum wage. That gives me a lot of hope. Since Trump was elected, we’ve gone from working with 200 restaurant companies to now almost 800, including several chains, to promote a different kind of industry. It’s just been outstanding.

And that brings me to what consumers can do. There are companies to support and push. We’ve created a diner guide, a free app called the ROC National Diner’s Guide. It provides gold and silver stars to restaurant companies that are doing the right thing, so you can support them. But even more importantly, we’re asking consumers to use the app to encourage more restaurants to join with what we call the “high road to profitability.”

Reyes: One concrete thing that people can do is support the Fair Food Program. People can support us by standing with us in the boycott of Wendy’s to help us bring them to the table to participate in the Fair Food Program and guarantee that when they buy tomatoes, they are doing it under the program’s implementation. We are aiming to bring a few more corporations [on board] to have a critical mass of the market participating so that we can then influence the rest of the retail food industry in the nation to do the same. We need to have more people standing with us in this fight. I would ask consumers to support the workers when we do a tour that goes through their city.

We have seen how the FFP is changing the lives of workers by creating the consequences from the market to transform the way in which the tomato industry and agricultural industry in general behave when it comes to farmworkers rights. And we have seen how these can also be also applied in other [scenarios], and that’s why we’re working with workers in the dairy industry in Vermont with Migrant Justice. We know that there are also workers in the Twin Cities that are working to implement something similar. Poultry industry workers are looking into this too, as are people in other parts of the world. The provisions that we include are the right to stop working if people feel threatened by exploitation, pesticide exposure, extreme heat, etc. Now, that right to stop working is also being applied in the textile industry of Bangladesh in the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.

People can support the effort in many different ways. I think that the more consumers know and the more they participate, the faster we’re going to be able to change the way people see workers at the end of the supply chain.

Oliva: One thing that is giving me a lot of hope right now is how much support there is for the Good Food Purchasing Policies (GFPP), which brings together five sectors of the food movement: nutrition, animal welfare, environmental sustainability, local economies, and labor. These procurement policies have been passed in a number of cities: L.A., Chicago, Washington D.C., Boston, San Francisco, and others. And there are campaigns happening in a lot of other cities.

It’s hopeful because it’s one of those rare examples of many different sectors, many different people all working together toward one common goal. And it’s also hopeful to me because it’s moving so fast and in so many places. Any of your readers can literally search for a campaign in their city and connect with it, or they can start their own campaign. This effort is really being driven by local communities.

Guillen: What’s giving me hope in our region is that farmworkers are taking leadership in creating their own governance structure and participating in creating the changes in the food system they believe need to be made. Having farmworkers leading themselves means that there is less compromise on what they know they deserve, both on the immigration front and when it comes to the economic well-being.

Part of the work that we do here is develop worker-owned farming cooperatives and worker-owned production cooperatives. The goal is for farmworkers to be owning the means of production and owning the land that we’re working on. We are asking consumers to support our organization in the creation of our farmworker-owned land trust, so that as we move into the next phase of really building a solidarity economy in order to have an equitable voice in local agricultural economies, we’ll also be [increasingly] owning the land that we’re working on. We’re needing a lot of capital support right now. We’ve already purchased 65 acres that is being farmed and the co-op is selling produce this year. I think that’s really hopeful!

I would like to ask consumers to look for farmworker-led fair-trade products and union products [and] to ask outlets, “Where are the products being produced by farmworker unions?”

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