How did that strawberry get from the field to your fork? Who picked it? Who is the farmworker behind our food?
Farmworker Awareness Week, which runs March 24 -31, emphasizes the importance of the farmworker and the greater importance of providing farmworkers with healthy and safe working environments.
“There are approximately two to three million farmworkers in the U.S., and over 1.2 billion farmers and workers are employed in agriculture throughout the world. Agriculture is one of the most challenging lowest paid and dangerous jobs out there. It can be a challenging work environment,” said
Hannah Freeman Senior Director of Produce and Floral at Fair Trade USA.
During Farmworker Awareness week, a multi-organizational campaign that celebrates and acknowledges the people who grow and harvest our food, both nationally and globally, ultimately asks the agriculture industry and consumers to take action to support the farmworker.
Progress and work to be done
“Things have gotten better in many areas but there’s a lot of work left to be done. In certain parts of the industry growers have made really good strides and in other areas there hasn’t been nearly enough work done yet,” explained Freeman, adding that there’s an array of working environments.
“Usually it’s a spectrum of farms that are doing really great on all areas, a lot of farms that are doing good in some areas, such as health and safety but not providing healthcare or housing, or farms that are doing none of that,” explained Freeman who said that legislation regarding farmworker rights is complicated.
“There are two challenges, sometimes there’s a lack of laws, but more often than not, there’s a lack of enforcement of those laws. We work a lot in Mexico, there are decent labor laws on the books in Mexico but they are widely ignored. It’s up to the grower, the supply chain and organizations like ours to figure out how to raise awareness to what the laws are and get people into compliance on those farms.”
It’s also up to the consumer, according to Freeman.
“Fair Trade is a certification that ensures that your produce is coming from farms with the highest social, environmental and labor standards,” she said elaborating on how consumers can take action.
“Number one, start asking questions. Ask questions of your produce manager of your super market or farmers market, get on social media and ask questions, and secondly fair trade is a really nice shorthand, if you don’t have time to do a ton of research on every different product you buy, buy fair trade, if you can't find fair trade, ask for it.”
“Selfishly, we should care about farmworkers because we want those who are picking our food to live in clean and dignified conditions so they are healthy enough to be handling our food. That means clean, well lit, well ventilated, well plumbed housing and access to healthcare,” said Freeman, also noting that the fair treatment of farmworkers is a win-win for the employee and the employer.
“In our experience the growers that have been a part of the fair trade program have usually started because they believe in it, but a few years into it, they come back and say, our sales to this retailer are up 40 percent because they prefer fair trade or that turn-over is down from 60 percent to less than 10 percent. There’s a wide range of benefits to being part of investing in fair trade supply chains,” said Freeman.
At a farm in Mexico called Divemex, Fair Trade Premiums support an educational scholarship for students – the children of farmworkers – who maintain a B+ average. The program allows employees to invest premiums from sales to Whole Foods and other retailers back into their community. This will enable kids to stay in school.
“In Mexico like most developing countries, public school is not exactly free, you have to pay for uniforms, books and the bus. The bus itself may cost a third of a farmworker’s daily salary. This can keep farmworker’s children from going to school beyond the elementary years, parents simply can’t afford it,” explained Freeman.
“One young boy I met at Divemex has a dream to become a doctor; Fair Trade is helping people meet their potential,” Freeman said, noting that his little sister is now benefiting from the scholarship program too.
“Once her brother won the scholarship, she felt the competition. They all invested in her, she raised her grades and now she received a scholarship. This helped her stay in school, helped with family finances and she’s performing better too,” said Freeman.
Advocate groups hope success stories such as these give momentum to the campaign for healthy farmworker environments.
For more information:
Fair Trade USA
+1 510 663 5260