The Foreign Hands That Feed Us

06 Aug 2015

Research into the impacts of immigration on the dairy industry found that a 50% reduction in foreign-born labor would result in the loss of 2,266 dairy farms. Not only is this industry dominated by immigrants (about two-thirds) but about a third of meat-packing jobs are carried out by immigrants – one of the most dangerous manufacturing jobs in the U.S.


The population of American fields by a foreign workforce is nothing new. Between the 17th and 19th centuries tens of thousands of African slaves were forced into labor, followed by immigrants from Europe and Asia who found themselves in positions of indentured servitude. It is currently estimated that Mexicans make up about half of all unauthorized immigrants.


Is it this immigrant workforce that is preventing Americans from gaining employment? When the United Farm Workers union in America launched a campaign offering to connect unemployed people to farm jobs, of a thousand inquiries only three people accepted positions. This was the reaction during a period when unemployment was hovering around 10% and many were feeling the pinch of the global financial crisis.


An accurate figure of the number of undocumented immigrants working in the U.S. is difficult to unearth. The work of many foreign workers is underreported, not least because a great number arrives in the country illegally.


Being undocumented renders immigrants susceptible to a variety of abuses: Violence, inadequate housing, dangerous conditions and exclusion from labor laws are just some of the problems they face. In addition, despite their undoubted contributions to the sector, the economy (it is thought that at least half pay income tax, often at a higher rates) and to communities, illegal immigrants lack political leverage and for fear of deportation they are often unable to speak out and frequently slide into isolation.


According to The Hands that Feed Us, a document produced by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, undocumented workers experience wage theft at more than double the rate of other workers (39.9%), while they also lose, on average, more money per hour. What’s more, 43.6% of all immigrant workers surveyed reported having earnings below the required minimum wage. In fact notwithstanding the immigrant workforce, 61% of US farm workers as a whole earn poverty wages.


Food Chains, a documentary detailing the exploitation of migrant farmworkers, points to big business as one of the root causes. It explains how giant supermarket chains have maintained prices at artificially low levels in spite of increases in other costs. In maintaining these low prices the wages of farm workers have suffered: for farmers to survive, they have had no choice but to hire cheap labor.


What is being done?


Initiatives to combat instances of abuse have begun to spring up. The Anti-Slavery Campaign headed by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has uncovered, investigated, and assisted in the prosecution of numerous multi-state, multi-worker farm slavery operations across the Southeastern US.


The CIW has also established the national Campaign for Fair Food, which educates consumers on the issue of farm labor exploitation, its causes and the solutions, and forges alliances between farmworkers and consumers. Through the Fair Food Premium participating buyers commit to paying an extra fee on top of the regular price they pay for tomatoes; although small, this premium helps alleviate the economic hardship faced by farmworkers. And the Fair Food Code of Conduct requires participating buyers to suspend purchases from growers who have failed to comply.


Further encouragement can be found at a political level. A prospective plan to grant illegal farmworkers in California the right to work represents further progress. Not only could this benefit much of the state’s undocumented workers, who account for 29% of those employed in the agriculture industry, but it also highlights the recognition of the vital role they play, and the need to protect their rights.




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