Guest blog post from Irit Tamir, Senior Advocacy and Collaborations Advisor for Oxfam America’s US Regional Office. Tamir will be a speaker at our June 2012 Public Conference “The Necessary (r)evolution for Sustainable Food Systems.”
Ironically, those who work in the food system are often the most food insecure, and farmworkers in particular are vulnerable because they are excluded from many of the protections that cover other workers under US law.
Every Mother’s Day involves working in my garden; and every year I plant vegetables and hope they’ll do well. But frankly, I’ve found the Massachusetts soil to be much less forgiving than the Midwest soil I’m used to. Nevertheless, on Sunday, my family and I once again planted a raised bed of vegetables with the help of Home Harvest. I’m hoping the professional assistance will yield more crops than we produced in past years.
Vegetable gardening may be a hobby for us, but it always gives me an appreciation for the people who actually do grow our food. Those people are usually invisible to all of us. We go to the grocery store and see beautiful produce lining the shelves without any real awareness of the process and hard work that it took to get them there.
Ironically, those who work in the food system are often the most food insecure—and that extends throughout the food chain. Here in the US, over 20 million people work in the food supply industry. According to the Food Chain Workers Alliance, 23% of grocery workers are paid less than minimum wage. The Restaurant Opportunities Center found that 10.1 million workers are employed by the restaurant industry, which has some of the lowest wages along with many occurrences of wage theft. The median wage in that industry is only $8.89, which means that over half of restaurant workers earn below the federal poverty line for a family of three.
Farmworkers in particular are vulnerable because they are excluded from many of the protections that cover other workers under US law. For example, agricultural workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, so they have no right to collectively bargain under federal law (workers in other industries enjoy this right). In addition, they are exempt from many of the provisions under the Fair Labor Standards Act, including overtime provisions.
Most states exclude agricultural workers from the requirement of employers to provide workmen’s compensation insurance—despite the fact that farmworkers have a high incidence of occupational injury and illness. According to the Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States, in 2009 the occupational fatality rate for farmworkers was five times the rate of the average worker; yet in that same period fewer than half of them were covered by workers’ compensation insurance. Bottom line, there are at least 1.4 million farmworkers in this country, and three out of five of them (and their families) live in poverty.
Oxfam is working to bring these issues to light through the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI). EFI is a program that will certify good working conditions at a farm along with better food safety and pesticide practices. The program was created by major food buyers, growers, farmworker groups, and other non-governmental organizations, including Oxfam. Soon, consumers will be able to buy fresh produce and know that it came from a farm that provided a dignified livelihood for farmworkers, with fair and safe working conditions.
In the meantime, if you want your grocery store to join this program, tell them about EFI so we can begin to bring all workers in the food system out from the shadows and where we can see them thrive.