Farm-labor contractors and the dirty secrets behind low-cost produce

Photo by Lady_Fox (Jeanne Fox) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Journalist Tracie McMillan recently published a great piece at The American Prospect. Entitled “As Common As Dirt,” the article details the widespread problem of wage theft by contractors who supply workers to harvest crops and perform other farm work. As McMillan describes,

Known in some circles as “custom harvesters,” farm-labor contractors offer produce growers a ready workforce, but they also give these growers the ability to distance themselves from the people who pick their crops. These contractors control the flow of money between farmer and worker as well as all the paperwork. They track hours worked, crops harvested, and wages paid and take responsibility for everything related to labor, from verifying immigration status to providing workers’ compensation. Contractors can be found in the fields of nearly every handpicked crop in the United States, organic or conventional: green beans in Florida, grapefruit in Texas, peppers in Georgia, greens in Colorado, and garlic in California.

Farm-labor contractors give American produce growers what companies like China’s Foxconn offer to Apple: a way to outsource a costly and complicated part of the business, often saving money in the process and creating a firewall between the brand and the working conditions under which its products are made. “The contractor system makes it very difficult to enforce wage and hour laws because the idea is that the grower says, ‘It’s not me, it’s him. It’s the contractor. I had nothing to do with this,’” says Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project of Florida Legal Services and a leading farm-labor advocate.

Readers of McMillan’s recent book, The American Way of Eating, will be familiar with the various ways that workers get cheated out of wages that they earned through hours of physically arduous work. But where McMillan inserted herself into that story (à la Barara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed), the person who serves as the primary lens for this piece is Ignacio Villalobos, a 75-year-old, lifelong farm worker. McMillan has produced a serious piece of in-depth reporting, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. So, clear a few minutes from your busy day, and settle in for an eye-opening read.

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