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Who Produces Our Food? The Myths & Realities of Farmworkers

There are close to 500 million farmworkers involved in agricultural production all over the world. These are the women, men, and frequently children whose labor on small, medium, and large farms produces the food we consume every day but who do not own the farms or rent the land where they work. The terms of their employment vary widely. They could be permanent (more common on a medium or large farm), temporary, seasonal (common on all types of farms, especially during peak seasons that require a lot of labor), migrant workers, piece-rate workers, or workers receiving some kind of in-kind payment (more common on smaller farms).

Farmworkers remain largely invisible to policy-makers, governments, and research organizations. Globally, they have also been left out from most of the international development initiatives targeting smallholder farmers, although those two groups share many of the same challenges.

Most of my daily work is with coffee, cocoa and tea farmers that grow their products using sustainable agricultural practices and with the companies that buy those products here in North America. A common myth I have heard about sustainable products is that the smallholder farmers who produce them do not hire workers. The reality is that many smallholder farmers hire workers at some point in the year. With coffee, for example, the harvest requires high numbers of workers to pick coffee at exactly the right moment. Even very small farmers whose livelihood is barely above subsistence often rely on external labor for harvest. Some use family members or in-kind payments for neighbors, but many of them hire workers at some point during the harvest. For most of the coffee co-ops in Latin America that I have worked with over the last 10 years, there were many smallholder farmers who hired temporary workers at some point. Unfortunately, most of these workers do not receive the benefits of most of the common sustainability programs that we see on our grocery shelves every day.

A couple of years ago I participated in supporting a report on modern day slavery in coffee production in Brazil. The report showed how issues such as exhausting working hours, degrading living conditions, debt bondage, and forced labor were present 0n at least 15 coffee farms in Brazil. Those who work on labor issues in coffee know that these situations are unfortunately too common in coffee regions. Brazil is an exception because it has strong labor laws for agricultural workers and a system in place to monitor and enforce those laws, which is why there is enough information to document and understand these issues. Yet, in most coffee regions around the world, this information does not exist.

Here in the U.S. there is ongoing, well-documented abuse of farmworkers. To follow the issue of coffee, in 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor found children as young as five years-old working on coffee farms in Hawaii, and many workers who had not been paid and were forced to work overtime. Migrant laborers who travel from Mexico and CentralAmerica to work on U.S. farms are often subject to a wide range of labor abuses from withheld wages, unsafe conditions, including limited access to water and bathroom facilities, to conditions of modern day slavery that leave them highly indebted to employers.

So what can we do about it as Co-op Owners? We need to be informed shoppers. We need to ask questions about farmworker labor. If we buy produce that is labeled organic, or sustainable, we need to understand what type of worker protections are included or excluded from those programs and how to make sure that workers receive just treatment for their labor. Only as informed consumers we will be able to make decisions that improve the livelihoods of workers and farmers who produce the food we enjoy.

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