Do You Know Who Picks Your Food?
Story by Kymberly Breckenridge
Illustrated by Tatyana Starikova
Would you believe me if I told you that human slavery is alive and well in the state of New York? Agriculture and slavery have been intricately intertwined since we learned to till the land. The Farm Bureau would like you to believe our farms have evolved alongside the rest of the modern industries, but the ugly truth is, if we stop worker exploitation, our food source would be threatened. New York may claim to be part of the underground railroad of yesteryear, but aboveground in our fields and fisheries, the practice of using forced labor provides the food on our table. Hudson Valley residents take pride in knowing where our food comes from, but have we ever stopped to ask who picked it?
As defined under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), human trafficking is when people profit from the control and exploitation of others. Thanks to the power of the media, we can all imagine what sex trafficking looks like, but what we might not be aware of is labor trafficking: “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery” (Rochester Regional Coalition Against Human Trafficking [RRCAHT], http://www.rrcaht.org).
As anyone who has attempted a vegetable garden knows, at harvest season an incredible amount of work needs to be done in a short amount of time. Many larger farmers or mega-farms will turn to the services of a labor contractor—a middleman who meets all your labor needs. The International Labour Organization reported that “U.S. employers turn a blind eye to how workers are recruited; in other cases they were more intimately involved in fraud and coercion during the recruitment process.” So where and how do labor providers fill their coffers with workers?
When an individual is forced into labor, he or she usually owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off. According to the International Labour Organization, labor contractors will target the very poor, usually in Mexico, or central America, with the pitch that “employment in America would offer them a unique opportunity at a better life for both themselves and their families,” if only they pay a crippling “recruitment fee,” which they will never be able to pay off. Men and women are often hired for agricultural and fishery jobs that most Americans would not dream of performing—often dirty, dangerous and difficult—or are recruited through false promises. Rarely are the nature and conditions of the work they will perform explained to them. They are housed in locations with high security measures, unable to leave and return as they wish. After working unreasonably long and/or unusual hours with no breaks, they are rarely, if ever, paid (http://polarisproject.org).
I had a wonderful conversation with local farmer Tommy Hahn of Hahn Farm, a gorgeous 30-year-old agri-entertainment center where my family religiously attends the Fall Festival, cuts our Christmas tree and buys our organic, farm-raised Christmas roast beast. A sign stating “Know the People Who Put Food on Your Table,” a motto coined by Tommy, is displayed proudly at their roadside stand selling naturally raised meats and sausages, fresh produce and local products. Hahn does not have the luxury of “turning a blind eye” to find help; many harvests became a struggle with locating help, and sometimes “you have to dance with the devil to get the work done,” he said. Tommy has tried to help undocumented workers through the H-2A program, which “allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs” (uscis.gov). “The whole system is flawed,” Tommy explained. “There were so many hoops to jump through to help these people. I had a great apartment on my property for them to live, but the agents that came to inspect told me I didn’t have enough windows in the place.” He finally was able to obtain workers through the program and lent them his truck so they could come and go as they pleased. Quality of life with Hahn was infinitely better for these workers than for many who are trapped by giant farms who do not take an interest in the lives of their workers. Sadly, the experience was not positive for Tommy, and for now he relies on word-of-mouth through immigrant channels to get the help he needs during harvest.
Cheryl Giles of Walbridge Farm will no longer hire employees in the state of New York. She has been sued by so many former employees, and the suffocating state legal system and expense of workers’ comp/social security became too great. Family is how she gets around the worker issue, and when she needs extra help, she uses a legitimate private contractor. But, she adds, “There is no way I could go legit if I was a dairy or crops farm. The hours are too grueling; the work need too great.”
I grew up in Vermont near one of the largest apple orchards in the state, and every harvest our neighbor, Ray, would ask us local kids if we wanted to make a few extra bucks picking apples. But we would always say no, knowing that we could make triple the amount of money at the local restaurant catering to rich Canadians. With an agricultural model based on intense manual labor, Ray was forced to build another “barn” (a.k.a. the bunkhouse), fly to Jamaica and bring back 20 men to pick his harvest before flying them home. It was a win-win for everyone, and the Jamaicans became part of Ray’s family. And it was still cheaper than hiring us kids, who could make more as waiters. Would this same scenario play out in a mega-farm? Or would the production manager hire a middleman to take care of the labor issue for him?
Renan Salgado, the senior human-trafficking specialist at the Worker Justice Center for Kingston, Rochester and Albany, fights labor slave trade on a daily basis. The WJC is a legal service agency that focuses on educating workers as well as training law enforcement on how to investigate labor trafficking in agriculture. Salgado stresses that the community must understand that undocumented workers are entitled to the same labor rights as legal citizens, such as the right to minimum wage, to drinking water and bathrooms in the fields.
Salgado sees the Farm Bureau as the leading obstacle in the fight against forced labor. One of the most powerful lobbyists in the land, the Bureau has made sure that agriculture is exempt from many Fair Labor laws regarding overtime pay, the state’s minimum wage and age restrictions on labor (http://smallbusiness.chron.com). It is because of their efforts that not a lot is known about worker injustices both in the state and in the nation. The Farm Bureau makes it their business to make millions of dollars for their members by protecting the status quo. Their fingers reach to politicians and influential insurance companies. “You don’t have to be a farmer to join the Farm Bureau,” Salgado states, “just [have] a ‘passion for agriculture’ [their words], which allows people without any knowledge of farming to dictate state and national laws.” The Farm Bureau is a co-op exempt from paying taxes, as well as a tax shelter for any business transactions conducted between members.
Some human-trafficking organizations urge citizens to be aware of signs of slavery in their communities, such as poor health or avoidance of public contact exhibited by farm workers. But Salgado urges a different approach. He firmly believes that New Yorkers must fight against the criminalization of undocumented workers, especially if we want to rely on them for our economy. This criminalization of the undocumented leads not only to poor working conditions but domestic abuse, burglary among workers and anything else for which we would normally go to the police for help. Government must also remove some of the exclusions in the Fair Labor Act that all other businesses must adhere to, most importantly the right to organize as a way to obtain collective bargaining power.
Salgado’s agency also urges consumers to become aware of where their food comes from. “New York has experienced a nutrition consciousness and a push for local produce without a dialogue of the labor force behind our food,” he said. Farmers of both large and small operations must stop the practice of using a middleman to obtain labor. As Salgado explains, “Farmers must begin to be aware of what’s going on in their business; research where your workers are housed and how they are treated.” Most importantly, potential employers in any business capacity must understand that everyone is entitled to labor rights.
Agriculture as we practice it today requires hours of manual labor, and manual laborers are entitled to the same protection as any other workers. Thankfully, there are small farms in our area, like Hahn and Walbridge, who believe everyone has the right to respect and dignity.
We can do our part to protect our undocumented workers by asking our businesses who picks for them and what they are doing for them; being on the lookout in our community for people who look like they may be in trouble; joining organizations committed to protecting the lives of illegals; and contacting your congressperson to oppose the criminalization of undocumented workers. We have begun to desire that our food be grown in the soil around us; now we need to dig deeper, pun intended, and ask ourselves how we can help those who pick the food grown in our valley.