In 2021, the focus of safety when it comes to food production remains turned on the consumer. Organic foods in particular receive a halo of health that associates them with the wellness lifestyle that dominates social media. Sinclair’s assertion that safer working conditions for people working within supply chains would lead to safer products also remains true. The unfortunate truth, though, is that the American consumer is trained to ignore the reality of a supply chain that exploits labor, especially when the workforce is predominantly from an immigrant background.
While the USDA provides guidelines for organic certification that regulate pesticide use, farming methods and the wellbeing of livestock, the welfare of workers employed by farms and farmers is not currently within their remit. By virtue of lowered pesticide and chemical use, organic farming offers the potential for better working conditions for farm workers at risk of diseases caused by pesticide and chemical exposure. But until recently, farm workers weren’t even granted federal minimum wage protections. Even today, minimum wage isn’t federally mandated for small farms and farm workers in general are not entitled to overtime pay.
Instead, farm-worker income is mainly dictated by how fast they can work. In many cases people are paid by piece (i.e. how many buckets of tomatoes), which encourages workers not to take breaks or risk losing out on precious income. “For cherry or grape tomatoes they pay us $5 a bucket,” says Vianey Lopez, a farm worker based in Florida. “For each bucket you recieve a little coin or a little ticket. At the end of the day they count them and that’s what you get paid.”
In Lopez’s experience, this work isn’t paid differently on organic or conventional farms, but the level of focus needed for organic harvests means the work cannot be done as quickly. “When you pick non-organic, it’s just whatever. You pick whatever tomato comes in and put it in the bucket. With organic they’re really strict. If they only want us to pick red tomatoes we have to pick specifically red tomatoes, or if they want reddish with a little yellow, we can only pick those.”
The extra time workers like Lopez take to select these specific tomatoes ultimately cuts into
the overall yield they harvest individually each day, which Lopez says can negatively affect how much she is paid. A lower payout at the end of the day can be devastating, so workers are less incentivized to work on organic farms, despite the health risks associated with chemical exposure on non-organic farms.
Lopez tells a story of a woman that once suffered an allergic reaction to the chemicals, which was so severe that it affected her breathing. The employer’s response? “When the crew leader came down, the only thing he told her was, basically, if she’s allergic to not come back. And when I spoke to the lady [who suffered the attack] she basically said this was the only job she could find.”
Lopez also notes that while the employer eventually did call an ambulance, there were no direct health services provided by the employer to help her colleague.
In addition to physical health concerns, the instability of farm work also impacts workers. Many live in temporary housing on farms during harvests and find themselves moving multiple times a year depending on where their work takes them. Meanwhile, the introduction of the H2-A temporary worker visa for foreign agricultural laborers can also make it difficult for those residing in the US to gain steady employment.
Major agricultural employers are incentivized to employ H2-A visa holders as they are not required to pay taxes or unemployment for them. These workers also tend to come without their families, meaning housing costs can be significantly cheaper.
The aforementioned cost of organic farming methods and certification, as outlined by the USDA’s organic program, prioritize access for larger farms that are unlikely to change their employment practices without regulatory intervention. While their packaging touts the increased health and environmental benefits of organic products, the back-breaking work of farming and employment instability is still obscured from the consumer.
Small farms, where farmers are more likely to work alongside farmworkers and provide better living and working conditions, find slim profit margins constrain how much labor they can afford. As a result, many smallscale organic farms rely on WWOOFers (an international network of people who volunteer their time to work on a farm in exchange for room and board), or interns who are paid with stipends by outside organizations. This offers some economic reprieve for the farmer, but does little to improve working conditions across the industry.
While health concerns are one of the major factors that drive consumers towards organic purchases, we must reflect more on the health of people within the supply chain—the people who make it possible. Their physical well-being can be better protected when it comes to decreased contaminant exposure and regulated breaks, but we should also be concerned with improving the mental health of our farm workers as well: which comes in the form of better pay, increased job stability and a clear path to labor protections.