As heat rises, who will protect farm workers?

Nathan Wiebe
This is an article I came across by Mother Jones about the lack of federal protect for farmworkers in US Agriculture. It starts with this story:

“Last June, as a record-breaking heatwave baked Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Sebastian Francisco Perez was moving irrigation lines at a large plant nursery in 104-degree-heat. When he didn’t appear at the end of his shift, his co-workers went looking for him, and found him collapsed between rows of trees. Investigators from the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division determined that Perez died of heat-related hyperthermia and dehydration.

They also found that Perez had not been provided with basic information about how to protect himself from the heat. It wasn’t the farm’s first brush with regulators; it had previously been cited for failing to provide water and toilets to its workers. Later, in a closed conference with the Oregon health and safety agency, an Ernst Nursery & Farms official blamed Perez for his own death, claiming that employees should “be accountable for how they push their bodies.”

This is one major problem with industrialized mega farms that isn’t talked about enough. The bigger a farm gets, the more impersonal and inhumane it becomes.

The owners and investors of these mega farms are many layers removed from the people who actually work them. The owners and investors probably never looked Perez in the eyes. They never shook his rough, weathered hand. They never met his wife and children. To them he was an employee number. An expense on the balance sheet classified under "labour". A replaceable cog in their industrial food producing machine. This is why they blamed Perez for his own death and refused to take responsibility.

As we work through the summer heat this story really hits home. Heat related illness is a very real threat for us. However, we are lucky in that we get to set the pace, we decide when we take breaks. And if it gets really hot we can take the afternoon off and do work inside or go for a swim in the river. This is not the case for the vast majority of farmworkers working in our industrialized agricultural sector.

Farmers who work in industrial agriculture are uniquely at risk, especially as global warming gets worse. Working on a industrialized, large-scale farm is a particularly brutal job. It requires working long hard days in the heat and doing fast-paced, highly-skilled repetitive motions. To make matters worse “workers often aren’t paid an hourly wage but on a piece-rate basis; getting paid by the bucket, bundle or pound can disincentive workers from taking a break, advocates say. And crew leaders, who are employed by farms to oversee workers, often get paid bonuses based on how much their crews harvest”.

These farmworkers are doing the work the majority of us would not want to do, which is why they have to outsource the work to people who have less options and who are more desperate. This is why the majority of farmworkers in Canada and the US are foreign workers.

Working on a mega farm is dangerous, physically demanding and requires highly-skilled repetitive work. And yet these farmers are underpaid, overworked and not given adequate accommodations. Why is that? Shouldn't the people who have the most difficult jobs be paid the most? Not the least? Shouldn't we celebrate them and respect them like we do firefighters and nurses? You rarely need a firefighter or a nurse, but you do need someone to provide you with food every singe day. From this perspective, farmers are some of the most valuable workers we have. So why do we care so little about their wellbeing? It’s as if we care more about the food they grow then we do about the people who grow it.

Foreign workers often don’t speak good English. They’re working in Canada or the US on work visas or are undocumented, which gives their employers immense power over them. If farmworkers start to complain about unsafe working conditions they run the risk of being deported. This power dynamic is what leads to so many of the abuses. They also don’t have very many options for adequate work. Where as you or I could find easier jobs in different sectors, these foreign workers don’t have such luxuries. To them, working on a mega farm in another country is their best option. They work these jobs not because they want to but because the have to.

Labour exploitation is the one aspect of our industrialized food system that no one talks about. Almost all of the food in our grocery stores, which includes certified organic food, was grown with exploitative labour. Pesticides and GMO crops grab most of the attention today but not nearly enough is given to the farmers who suffer in silence for fear of being fired, deported or abused even worse.

As farmers, we relate to these foreign farmworkers more than most because we know how hard it is to grow food. Stories like this really stick out to us now. They emphasis the need for us to continue our transition away from mass produced food and towards food produced by the masses. Our industrialized food system is cruel in so many ways, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We do can do better!