We’ve all seen it. A student carelessly tosses food from a dining hall because it tasted bad. By now, those people are probably not bothered by the “food could go to starving children in Africa” argument. But what people never remember to consider is where their food comes from.
Here’s a cold, hard fact: Migrant workers in the United States source our food. Nearly 50 percent of farm workers are unauthorized by the government, or are otherwise undocumented. Another 20 percent of workers are authorized through methods such as green cards, but are not citizens.
By purchasing products from suppliers that make use of migrant labor, the institution is allowed to continue and expand thanks to you, the consumer. If you’re like most students, including me, you just buy whatever the markets have to offer because it’s convenient and it uses the massive piles of dining dollars you have left over. It’s also this sort of attitude that leads to blindly supporting corporations who can be doing a number of shady practices, including mistreating migrant workers.
When one thinks of migrant workers, they may think of that photograph taken by Dorothea Lange of a mother and her two children during the Great Dust Bowl. That image is outdated and simply does not represent who migrant workers are today in the United States.
The living conditions are suboptimal. As described by a certain migrant worker who wished to not be identified, the workplace was an “atmosphere of fear.” Think of workers on a dusty field: dirt packed into the soles of their shoes; the sun beating down with no shade in sight; the lush green fields, before there are any actual greens; with a tired back and aching muscles, they live in minuscule housing just to wake up the next morning to do the same thing. Hunched over, workers perform labor all day, hand-picking crops for wages that are barely livable. Most of these workers come from other countries in search for these lives, which are more hopeful than what they had.
These migrant workers mainly come from places all around Mexico, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Puebla, Morelos, and Veracruz. Traveling hundreds of miles to arrive in the United States and other countries, workers arrive to perform simple farm labor, but their traveling does not stop there. Workers often continuously move around throughout their lives to find wherever crops are growing, depending on the season.
In the bustling global economy of today, farmers and landowners must use the most cost-efficient method of labor, which happens to be employing people who are willing to work for next to nothing in the most appalling work environment imaginable. The hours are long and the pay is low, but the workers do it anyway because that is all they can do. Especially with the current social sphere, these workers, whom some would call criminals and drug dealers, have increasingly difficult situations in legally getting to the United States.
Migrant workers are victims of their conditions. They must obey and be submissive to their employers. Speaking out may get them punished or fired, which would result in the replacement of workers from the large supply of migrant workers readily available to work for anything. In addition to the silencing of voices, workers do not have the resources that others may have to get the government to make legislative changes.
The farming industry cannot be made more humane by quick solutions such as simply requiring a minimum wage for farmworkers, or requiring housing to be made livable when provided by the employer. There are always loopholes for employers to go around these adjustments to continue maximizing profit and minimizing resources devoted to labor.
The sad truth is that employers are also often victims of the industry. Farming is no longer a viable way of life. While food is integral to all life on the planet, whoever is able to produce the most for the cheapest is the one to profit the most with distributors. Smaller farms must employ migrant workers as cost-efficient labor that would save them money, allowing the employers themselves to live and provide for families of their own. The most viable way that small farms can survive is to produce corn, the most subsidized crop by the government, to make money rather than providing crops that would actually be useful for themselves. Even larger farms employ migrant workers, treating their own workers poorly for the sake of profit. Larger corporations may have the resources to provide better equipment and hire more workers so that workers could perhaps take occasional breaks. For larger farms, it is more of a decision of where their priorities lie, while smaller farms lack the resources to farm at the efficient rate that mechanized farming may provide.
Even in the county of San Diego, smaller farms are having trouble simply maintaining business with the growth of larger farms and corporations. According to the San Diego County Food System, “Farms with more than $500,000 in sales, the highest income category, grew by 37 percent … the number farms earning between $10,000 and $100,000 annually, the total number of farms in the two lowest income categories has declined as a percent of total farms” (34). When the smaller farms are not able to compete, the larger farms are able to buy the land and absorb the smaller farms to increase their acreage.
Cesar Chavez has done a lot for migrant workers, but it’s far from solving all the issues that farm workers face. He brought together migrant workers to fight for migrant worker rights, most notably during the march to Austin, Texas. The long-lasting legacy of Chavez still exists today in the form of the United Farm Workers, which serves as a national union for all farmworkers in the United States. However, there are troubles in the workforce, especially for undocumented workers, and other difficulties when it comes to unions.
In spite of having Cesar Chavez’s face on the side of Peterson Hall, UC San Diego disrespects his legacy by selling products from the likes of Driscoll’s, which is notorious for its mistreatment of migrant workers. As a student just trying to pass classes and survive the quarter, a small thing that can be done is to not buy products from companies that unfairly treat migrant workers.
Chavez and other influential leaders during the time were able to draw attention to the issue momentarily, but were far from perfecting the conditions of migrant workers.
Migrant worker issues are deeply rooted in the historical injustice of the United States. In short, the United States has always been racist towards non-whites and immigrants, which ultimately affected the ownership of farmland to persist mainly of older, white males. With the many immigration quotas that established limits on how many immigrants could come to America in a year and which even completely excluded Chinese immigrants for decades, it is not very surprising there is a negative stigma to being an immigrant to some in the United States. The treatment of migrant workers is another manifestation of institutional racism; failing to combat the horrific conditions continues to feed this cycle.
The harsh reality is that people are either unaware that migrant workers labor in horrific conditions or simply do not care about the issue. People only want to eat the produce, but they never want to know how it gets here.
Consider caring about how the produce makes its way to you. Consider caring about human rights violations occurring right here in the United States. Consider caring about something that isn’t just your finals and midterms.
The people who have the most power and can create change in society to help these poor workers are people like you. This isn’t some PBS-esque thank you for reading this article, it’s a plea for help. Stand up for those who can’t. Care about where your food comes from. Show migrant workers that America is worth moving to, and that the United States has something better to offer than living a life in poverty.
Philip Huang is a contributing writer for The Triton.