The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many of our society’s frailties — and here’s a big one: In the 21st century, we still operate our farms and food systems as if they were a 19th-century plantation.
Despite the technology and logistics we apply to producing and distributing food, it still turns on exploiting vulnerable people for their labor. Everywhere there are headlines about food-chain workers — the people paid a pittance to pick our vegetables, butcher our meat, stock and ring up our groceries, and perform other essential jobs for all of us — having trouble feeding their own families and even staying healthy themselves. Now, the nation’s food supply chain is disrupted because workers are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 infections because their work environments aren’t safeguarded.
Cavalier assurances from the food industry at the start of the pandemic — about food supply disruptions being a temporary matter of adjusting supply and demand through the grocery channel — took some things for granted. For example, some humans still need to get in the dirt, cut up produce, hack away at carcasses, move mountains of canned goods, and work and live in the cheek-by-jowl environments that make it plain what a luxury it is for others of us to be able to “practice social distancing” and to earn a living through telework.
Vice President Mike Pence told these workers directly on April 7: “We need you to continue, as a part of what we call critical infrastructure, to show up and do your job.” But there is a massive gap between that grandiose statement and the reality of how we treat food-chain workers, from poverty wages to the lack of basic health and retirement benefits — or workplace protection guarantees — that many of us count on. In that same speech, Pence promised that the government would “work tirelessly” to ensure that the workplaces of food-chain workers were safe. Since then, hundreds have fallen ill in meat processing plants, the latest hot spots of the pandemic. This disregard for the well-being of these workers is not new, it’s just that the general public is now forced to acknowledge it.
While some official guidelines to assure the safety of these “essential workers” do exist, they are seldom enforced, even under ordinary circumstances. How can it be that in one of the world’s most advanced economies (at least that’s what we all thought before the pandemic), “essential workers” can’t earn enough to feed themselves and are compelled to work despite legitimate fear for their lives?
It is because there is a direct connection to the 19th-century plantation economy. Enslaved people — who were not recognized as fully human by the U.S. government and much of the citizenry — were not paid for their labor and skills. Rather than reorganize agriculture around the need to pay free, unbonded workers for the value of their labor, the farm industry has, since emancipation, continued to exploit people who are economically desperate, or who — because Americans citizens won’t do this work for themselves nor accept that this means immigrants must do it — aren’t documented to work in this country. Both of these conditions make people even more susceptible to abuse.
The nation’s Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, has described the unwillingness of Americans to perform dangerous and undervalued food-chain work, even under historic levels of unemployment: “These are jobs that are contributing to the American economy by doing many of the jobs that Americans just don’t want to do anymore, and this is one of them. There is a real labor shortage of farm labor in America, and these people contribute to keeping us fed and keeping our national security.” Economic studies have overwhelmingly shown that this skilled workforce performs critical work that Americans don’t want to do. These workers who are indispensable to the economy aren’t valued, as illustrated by our labor and immigration policies. As a result, they’re among the most vulnerable in our society.
Rather than acknowledging the need for greater fairness to these workers, the agricultural industry is brazenly capitalizing on the COVID-19 crisis to make things worse. Under the guise of “helping American farmers,” the industry has asked the White House and U.S. Department of Agriculture to reduce wages — you read that correctly — for “domestic guest workers,” a class of immigrants who agree to come to the United States for a prescribed period of time and only perform agricultural labor. Though they constitute a small fraction of the agricultural workforce, economists agree that lowering their wages will reduce wages for all “menial” workers.
Rather than acknowledging the need for greater fairness to these workers, the agricultural industry is brazenly capitalizing on the COVID-19 crisis to make things worse.
In an April 2 podcast, Perdue profusely purported to thank all involved in keeping the food supply chain functional “all the way up and down.” But he didn’t include farmworkers. His only acknowledgment that such people exist was his assurance that he is working with the State Department to assure farmers won’t see a disruption in their labor supply. It’s clear that he regards food-chain workers not so much as essential workers, but rather as costs to be reduced. Nothing makes exploitation as explicit as telling human beings: “We value your labor, but we don’t value you.”
If successful, this shortsighted mercenary move by the current administration may just backfire on the agricultural industry by eroding the few remaining incentives for immigrant workers to come to U.S. farms for ever-diminishing returns — and exacerbate the country’s “labor supply problem.”
Everyone who eats ought to decry the exploitative nature of our food system. But in particular, we should oppose cynical moves like this during a pandemic. This is clearly an opportunistic ploy to cut costs and increase profits for an already affluent and powerful industry with the cover of a national emergency. Moreover, those of us who advocate for better agricultural, food, and public health policies need to insist that “better” is more than a veneer on a system still grounded in antebellum — if not medieval — human exploitation. This is not a minor side issue about “agricultural labor” — it is about the barbarous difference between the mythic country we say this is and the country it actually is.
What we can do
We need to protest directly to the key decision-makers, a literal handful of people, who believe that the obscurity of these issues will protect their brutality. And we need to expose the grifting, venal industries taking advantage of the moment. Here are three ways to bring the heat to these people:
First, we need to bombard the CEOs of the major meatpackers who are devaluing the lives of their workers by rushing to keep open — or to reopen — their infected plants without the major alterations required to make crowded, high-speed butchering facilities safe. These are Larry Pope (Smithfield Foods), Noel White (Tyson Foods), and David MacLennan (Cargill Inc.).
Second, we need to call out the hypocrisy of “wage relief” to the architects of this craven plan: Secretary of Agriculture Perdue; President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows; Dave Puglia, the president of the Western Growers Association; and Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Finally, as Congress considers additional stimulus packages in response to the pandemic in the coming weeks and months, tell your congressional representative to classify farmworkers as first responders and — instead of cutting their wages — provide them with pandemic premium pay increases, among other critical health and safety protections.
Elected leaders need to hear that the public will not support moves to further enrich the superrich while making the lives of the working poor and immigrants even more desperate.
Ricardo Salvador is senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.