Big Agriculture=Good for Workers?

Here’s a very cool and counterintuitive piece about the agricultural industry, looking at why farmworkers are usually better off working for giant companies than smaller farms. The writer, Tracie McMillan, is a friend who has a related book coming out in 2011 about the food system. It’s called Foodless: On (Not) Eating Well in America. (If you haven’t noticed, parenthetical insertions are (very) popular in book subtitles).

I say related because her book also deals with food, but in a much more deliberate way. I stumbled upon writing about food because of the jobs I did–harvesting lettuce, processing chicken, working at a restaurant–but I was thinking much more about immigrant labor than food. In fact, before this book my thinking about food was usually along the lines of “How much cereal is left in the box?”

Anyway, the article brings up a really interesting point: many farmworkers prefer to labor for large agricultural companies rather than small farmers because they will be more likely to have a reliable work schedule, benefits like health care, and bosses who–if only because they are checked more often by the government–follow the law. Of course, as Tracie points out, industrial agriculture has a whole host of problems–environmental degradation, the churning out of products used only for processed junk food, etc–but she argues that for workers, bigger can be better. And this is an important point: In all the talk about the new food movement, the situation of farmworkers is often completely absent.

I can say that while in Arizona, working for a huge company, the conditions were adequate. We had a set schedule, we weren’t shorted our wages (which were hardly princely, at just over $8 an hour), and safety regulations and a set break schedule were followed. But in talking with other folks who in the past had found jobs through labor contractors for smaller companies, they described many abuses. So the article fits with what I’ve experienced and heard.

Of course, there are all sorts of fatal problems with industrial agriculture. We do need a food system that is environmentally sustainable, treats animals with respect, and doesn’t bring about global warming or result in vast lagoons of pig shit. But we also have to remember that any change to our food system can’t be considered a true step forward unless it also improves the lives of the farmworkers, poultry processors, and other people who are actually responsible for feeding us.

Finally, if you’ve got five minutes to kill, here’s a much younger Michael Moore in action, who among other things is trying to deport a possible immigrant with a suspicious accent.

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