Threatened by Climate Change, Food Chain Workers Demand Labor Protections | Civil Eats

Threatened by Climate Change, Food Chain Workers Demand Labor Protections

The farm bill has long excluded farmworkers and other food chain workers. Now, workers and advocates are making a case for including their needs in the massive bill.

Representative Greg Casar speaks during the Farm Bill Labor briefing in July 2023. (Photo courtesy of Union of Concerned Scientists)

Representative Greg Casar speaks during the farm bill labor briefing in July 2023. (Photo courtesy of Union of Concerned Scientists)

As plumes of smoke from Canada’s wildfires drifted all the way to the southern U.S. in late July, dairy worker Luis Jiménez spoke before nearly a hundred congressional staff members in Washington, D.C.

“We, agricultural workers, face conditions that you cannot even imagine,” he said, advocating for himself and the 21.5 million workers in the food system who are not protected by the farm bill. Jiménez, who co-founded Alianza Agrícola with several other dairy workers, had traveled from New York to attend a congressional briefing hosted by Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Senator Alex Padilla (D-California), and several advocacy groups.

“We either continue to ignore workers, or we finally step up to the plate and do something historic this year.”

“I believe that farms are the motor for the food chain,” he said, alongside a farmworker who described toiling in Florida’s record-breaking heat, and a meatpacking worker who talked about processing chicken at a grueling speed in Georgia. “I am just asking for what we deserve.”

Food system workers have been left out of the past 18 farm bills stretching back to the 1930s, when the bill was first enacted. The major spending bill was a hallmark of New Deal legislation, and it remains the most significant set of policies impacting the U.S. food system. While the farm bill touches upon nearly every part of that system, it is notorious for steering around labor. Historically, lawmakers have justified this exclusion by claiming that labor issues don’t fall under the authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the agriculture and nutrition programs, authorized every five years, in the expansive bill.

Yet advocates and workers want to see that change, as the sweeping bill enters its final months of negotiations. “As far as we know, this is the first time that there has ever been a congressional briefing about labor and the farm bill,” said Navina Khanna, who moderated the panel of food worker speakers and serves as the executive director of the HEAL Alliance. “Everyone here is part of a historic moment.”

The well-attended briefing included staffers from 39 House offices and 22 Senate offices. Advocates and workers pressed lawmakers for protections to address workplace hazards, from line speeds in poultry plants to disaster assistance for farmworkers. The current farm bill expires on September 30, though it is unclear when its next draft will be finalized.

“We either continue to ignore workers, or we finally step up to the plate and do something historic this year,” said Representative Greg Casar (D-Texas) on the agricultural committee, at the briefing. “The farm bill is this incredible opportunity to win justice for everyday people—whether you work in the food industry [or] you eat food, which is all of us. Every single person has a stake in this.”

Safety Net for Food Workers

This briefing was precipitated by a letter sent on June 9 to both the Senate and House’s agricultural committees, which are responsible for drafting the farm bill. The letter was spearheaded by HEAL Food Alliance, the Farmworkers Association of Florida, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, and the Food Chain Worker Alliance, who co-hosted the briefing. It was undersigned by more than 100 other advocacy organizations.

“The USDA is here not just to support farm business owners, but everyone who contributes to food production in the country,” Sophie Ackoff, the farm bill campaign director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Civil Eats. “There are so many ways that the farm bill can directly support workers, squarely within the jurisdiction of the ag committee.”

“It’s really, really hot in Florida. A lot of times they don’t provide any water for us to have either.”

The letter detailed 10 ways that the agency could provide more protections for workers across the food chain, including by expanding existing programs. It called for expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), food benefits for low-income families, to address high rates of food insecurity among food chain workers. It also called for replenishing the Farm and Food Worker Relief Program and expanding disaster payments, measures to support workers through economic crises.

The USDA’s disaster programs have long prioritized the owners of farms and ranches, while largely overlooking the financial toll of disasters on farmworkers. That aspect is especially timely; earlier this year, farmworkers lost weeks and even months of wages in California’s winter storms. The letter points to how emergency grants “to assist low-income migrant and seasonal farmworkers haven’t been funded since the 2008 Farm Bill.” Rather than ad-hoc disaster payments, the letter underscores the need for a standing disaster fund that can quickly be dispersed to farmworkers, as climate disasters on farms are expected to get worse.

Advocates also called for farmworkers to be included in the USDA’s declarations of disaster, frequently utilized to support farm owners. “Whenever a disaster is declared for the farmers, where farmworkers [also] work, that should count as a disaster for farmworkers too and allow them to use this money,” said Lorette Picciano, the executive director of the Rural Coalition, who informed this portion of the letter.

Along with expanding the reach of existing programs, the letter also proposed new avenues for the USDA to support food industry workers. For instance, the letter noted that the USDA and other federal agencies are major purchasers of the nation’s food supply. It called for new labor standards within the agencies’ procurement contracts, effectively penalizing companies that violate labor standards by denying them federal business.

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Critical Moment for Food Workers

This push for labor protections comes as the impacts of climate change have become more common and severe. At the historic briefing, workers spoke about how the climate crisis has worsened their already strenuous jobs—and has even pushed some workers to their deaths.

“In times of heat, it doesn’t matter how hot it is. It could be 6 a.m. It could be 9 p.m. In the dairy industry, we work 24 hours a day.”

“It’s really, really hot in Florida. A lot of times they don’t provide any water for us to have either,” said Mirella Estrada, the Florida farmworker who spoke at the congressional briefing. She described in Spanish how workers will often ask their supervisor for more water, but “that water never arrives.” Sometimes she works from 5:30 in the morning until 11:30 at night, harvesting vegetables without any provided shade until night falls.

Estrada described the day she lost a coworker to heat illness. He quietly moved farther and farther from the group as they harvested tomatoes. Soon after, they found him under a tree, unresponsive. She realized that he had been searching for shade, which isn’t required on Florida farms. He found it too late, in a tragedy that keeps repeating heat waves worsen. “We end up coming to this country to die on the fields under these conditions,” she said.

“In times of heat, it doesn’t matter how hot it is. It could be 6 a.m. It could be 9 p.m. In the dairy industry, we work 24 hours a day,” said Jiménez, who works in upstate New York, a region that has faced deadly floods, heat waves, and wildfire smoke in just the last month. “They call us essential. In reality, we are disposable.”

Long, strenuous hours can expose workers to dangerous hazards for longer periods of time, heightening the risk of injury. David Tony Adams, who works as a technician at JBS Foods, the world’s largest meat processing company, described the risk posed by requiring workers to process chicken at increasingly rapid speeds. His company was granted waivers to increase line speeds beyond previous regulatory limits, under a Trump-era rule.

“We’re already in tough conditions [due to] the heat, the cool, the wetness, and hard floors,” said Adams, a member of the local United Food & Commercial Workers Union in Georgia. “[The fast pace] puts more stress on your body, physically and mentally.” After pushback from lawmakers and advocates, the USDA is studying the impacts of increased line speeds on workers in plants where they’ve granted waivers, including at JBS’s Pilgrim’s Pride Corp.

But food chain workers and advocates want the USDA to use more of its authority to address this well-documented risk to workers.

In particular, the recent letter calls for passage of Senator Booker’s Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act as part of the next farm bill. That change would “prohibit the Secretary of Agriculture from issuing a waiver to increase line speeds”—unless it is determined that faster speed wouldn’t put workers at greater risk through an inspection.

At the briefing, Representative Casar announced his plans to jointly introduce another piece of legislation that would address line speeds. “We are getting co-sponsors on it and will shortly introduce the Agriculture Worker Justice Act, which will be bicameral on the House and Senate side,” he said. He hopes this will be included in the farm bill, noting that it will also address other concerns raised in the letter.

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While the briefing signaled unprecedented support for labor protections in the farm bill, it’s unclear whether any of the proposed changes will make it into the upcoming draft. In recent listening sessions for the sweeping bill, held in agricultural districts, farm owners raised concerns about “high labor costs”—a justification that advocates say has historically been used to deny labor protections that might raise the operating expenditures on U.S. farms and expand the H2A guest worker program instead.

Responding to this concern, the House Committee on Agriculture, which has a considerable responsibility in drafting the next farm bill, recently formed the Agricultural Labor Working Group to explore what it calls the “lack of reliable labor” on U.S. farms.

It remains to be seen whether this new committee will address the concerns of the workers themselves, as Congress will soon decide its next critical chapter.

“These priorities are just really the bare minimum for food workers to have the same rights as other workers,” said Nezahualcoyotl Aiuhtecutli, director of the Farmworker Association of Florida. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

Grey Moran is a Staff Reporter for Civil Eats. Their work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Grey writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. They live in New Orleans. Read more >

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