Common ground for the Thanksgiving dinner table?

Common ground for the Thanksgiving dinner table?

- in Weekly Briefing

Treatment of farm and food processing workers deserves a mention this Thursday

This Thursday, all over America, families and friends will gather in groups small and large for what is perhaps the country’s most universal holiday – a day that is celebrated by people from all religious and non-religious traditions. For a large percentage of the people coming together, the centerpiece of the day will be a shared meal in which those in attendance will give thanks for the blessings of life in this country and the remarkable bounty of which so many here are able to partake.

During and after the meal a lot of friends and families will add to their collective need for antacids by chewing over the issues of the day – the state of the economy, the recent election results, maybe the latest airline safety guidelines. In a lot of instances, these discussions will be enough to leave the participants glad they don’t have to interact with their dinner table companions for another year. In others, it will be a matter of folks preaching to the choir.

In at least a few, however, there may be a chance for some actual “ah hah moments” – brief episodes of illumination in which people consider and even understand important truths that they had ignored or resisted previously.

One area that’s particularly ripe for such treatment in 2010 is the plight of America’s farm and food processing workers. Indeed, if there were any justice in the world, it would be a requirement that every well-fed American who bellies up to an overcrowded Thanksgiving table take five minutes to ponder the lives led by many of the people who harvested and processed the food they’re about to consume.

The sad song remains the same

Or better yet, perhaps everyone could be required to watch a rerun of “Harvest of Shame” – the groundbreaking CBS documentary that was first broadcast 50 years ago this week. Sadly, very little has changed in the intervening decades since Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly told the nation’s TV viewers about the shameful exploitation that so many of their fellow citizens were forced to endure in order to eke out a living.

Given however, that copies of the old documentary are hard to find, perhaps people could at least consider and digest some of the following facts, courtesy of the North Carolina Farmworker Advocacy Network:

Working conditions – Farm work remains terribly hard and dangerous work. Workers often put in 14 hour days in bad weather – including extreme heat and rain. In North Carolina, seven farmworkers died of heat stroke over a recent five year stretch. They were literally worked to death. Heat stroke isn't the only problem in the fields.

Employers with 10 or fewer workers aren't required to provide toilets or clean water during the work day. And some employers ignore the regulations altogether, putting workers at risk. Workers have had to drink water from ponds containing pesticides when there is no other water source. 

A quarter of tobacco workers experiences nicotine poisoning through the skin at least once in a growing season. In just one day, workers can absorb the amount of nicotine found in 36 cigarettes. 

Pesticide exposure is a huge problem. Because pesticides can contaminate work clothes, hair, and even skin, pesticides are brought into the home when parents return from work. Pesticides can also drift into the home from spraying in nearby fields. Children are especially sensitive to pesticides because they are still developing. Children whose parents work in agriculture are more likely to have pesticides in their bodies.

A recent study in California found that among Latinos, farmworkers were more likely to develop certain types of leukemia by 59%, stomach cancer by 70%, cervical cancer by 63%, and uterine cancer by 68%. Other studies of farm workers and farm families show decreased levels of fertility and higher levels of problems like birth defects and miscarriages in these families.

And danger isn’t limited to the fields, as the Charlotte Observer documented in great detail in its 2008 series “Cruelest Cuts,” comparable dangers and health problems can be found in the food processing industry as well.

Wages – Agriculture is North Carolina’s leading industry, including food, fiber, and forestry, bringing in $59 billion and constituting 22% of the state’s income. Eighty-five percent of fruits and vegetables produced in the United States, including those in North Carolina, are harvested by hand.

Yet, farmworkers’ average annual income is $11,000 making them the second lowest paid workforce in the nation. Farmworkers living in east coast states such as North Carolina earn about 35% less than this national average. Though farmworker wages have increased slightly over the last decade, after adjustment for inflation they have actually decreased by 5%.

According to a recent study, nearly five out of ten farmworker households in North Carolina cannot afford enough food for their families.

Labor laws allow children as young as twelve years old to work in agriculture in North Carolina with their parent’s consent. However, children of all ages can be found working in the fields. 

In North Carolina, most agribusinesses are exempt from laws requiring Workers’ Compensation for farmworkers who are injured on the job.

There is no protection under North Carolina or federal law for farmworkers to organize a union, work overtime, take sick leave, or for those who are laid off from their jobs.

Health – Farmworkers suffer from higher blood pressure compared with the general public, especially for men and women aged 20-44.  This puts them at increased risk for heart disease and diabetes. 

Pregnant women in farmworker families are much less likely to receive prenatal care.

Fifty-three percent of children in migrant farmworker families in Eastern North Carolina have an unmet medical need, and the need is proportionally higher for preschool aged children.

Nationally, farmworkers face six times the risk of other groups of contracting tuberculosis.  

Of the more than 150,000 farmworkers in the state, less than 20% receive health care. 

Eighty-five percent of farmworkers in the U.S. have no health insurance, and 9 out of 10 children in farmworker families are uninsured.  

What can be done?

The picture, in short, remains an ugly one. Fifty years after the documentary, Thanksgiving 2010 will still be the byproduct in large measure of a “harvest of shame.” So what do we do? People can’t stop eating, of course, but they can help advance an attitude shift and push for policy changes.

A few years back, advocates in North Carolina fought a pitched battle with agricultural interests and state agencies and managed to extract some very modest improvements to the housing requirements for farmworkers. State law was amended to require that beds provided to farmworkers include an actual mattress. Housing inspection laws were also improved slightly. But requirements that would have assured toilet and shower facilities somewhat on par with the requirements for prisoners were deemed overly generous and a great burden to agribusiness.

In 2011, North Carolina desperately needs a new commitment to legislative and policy advocacy that would pick up where these efforts left off. If even a small fraction of the comfortably affluent North Carolinians who will gorge themselves this Thursday took a moment to visit the website of the Farmworker Advocacy Network and endorse the group’s “Harvest of Dignity Campaign,” we might just make some progress.

So, this Thursday, take a chance if you get it to share some of this important and sobering information with a dinner companion. It may not help your digestion much, but it could make looking in the mirror a little easier while you’re swallowing a remedy for your sour stomach.

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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