The food industry, along with the apparel industry, has long led the way in labor exploitation. Throughout the 20th century, agricultural interests went to extreme lengths to keep labor costs down, which meant paying them as close to nothing as possible, crushing any organizing efforts through violence, winning exemptions from labor law, and creating arrangements to bring in immigrant workers who lacked all rights. In the era of capital mobility and subcontracting agreements, food companies can now use the same types of arrangements that allow Walmart and Gap to get clothes made at factories that burn or collapse without any corporate consequence to acquire the food we buy. All the corporations care about is one thing–keeping costs down. How that is done is up to the contractor. Don’t ask, don’t tell. But make sure you do what is necessary to keep those costs low.
The Los Angeles Times published an outstanding piece of journalism yesterday investigating the labor conditions of huge vegetable farms in Mexico that export produce to the United States. It will not surprise most readers here that the conditions are nothing more than rank labor exploitation, on par with the worst working conditions in the history of the United States and those today of Honduras, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India. You obviously need to read it all, but just real quick:
The Times found:
Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It’s common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
Major U.S. companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.
Basically, big American vegetable sellers contract with farms in Mexico. Those companies might claim they care about labor sourcing but we all know that’s a lie. Those farms then recruit poor Mexicans, largely indigenous people from southern Mexico, with promises of payment. They then house those workers in hovels, refuse to pay them, underfeed them, don’t provide them with bathing facilities, etc. All so you can eat tomatoes for cheap in January. See that image above? This is the “housing” of the people who grow the produce you eat from Mexico. Which is a lot of your produce, especially this time of the year.
The only way the companies care about this is when all their efforts to hide production from American consumers fails. Then they develop strategies to avoid culpability and stall reporters long enough for everyone’s attention to be turned to some other issue. It’s quite effective, even when their documents on how to do this are leaked.
As I argue in Out of Sight, these conditions are precisely why central to our demands for a just world must be international labor standards enforceable in U.S. courts. Anything else will keep workers in these conditions. If Subway wants to use tomatoes grown in Mexico, fine. But those tomatoes have to be produced in conditions that stand up to a basic test of human rights. If wages are stolen, workers threatened, bathing facilities not provided, etc., then workers should have the right to sue for recompense in American courts. Subway, Safeway, McDonald’s, etc., must be held legally responsible for the conditions of work when people labor in growing food for them to sell.
This has to be a legal framework. Mass movements are useful only in the short term because we will move on to the next issue. One month it is protesting war, the next it is sweatshops, the next it is police violence. There are too many injustices in this world to rely on mass movements. People only have so much time. Only through a legal framework can those people who do devote themselves to this issue full time have a framework to enforce worker rights in the long term.