FOOD POLITICS

Navigating the New Food Movement: Does migrant farm labor really work for slave wages?

Do large farms really exploit their workers?

"Is it a stretch," historian Dan-el Padilla Peralta asked a lecture the last week of October before the Department of English at University of Nebraska, "to compare today's immigrants with Roman slaves?" The Princeton- and Oxford-trained classical historian, himself a child of undocumented immigrants in this country, lays out an interesting case that a globalized economy that contributes to a necessity to emmigrate may owe something to its immigrants. However, his rhetoric comparing today's U.S. immigrants to Roman slaves as "bound to farms with little to no prospect of relief" betrays the prejudices of many against today's large farms. Factory farms, writes Huffington Post "traveling research scholar" Lucas Spangher, for example, are rampant with poor pay, long hours, harassment, abuse and a frightening pace so strict workers take their bathroom breaks in their pants rather than risk blame for slowing down production.

It's a common meme among advocates, popular food writers and documentaries, writes University of Colorado at Boulder sociologist Jill Lindsey Harrison in the December issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values: Contrasting the honorable labor of ‘‘family farms’’ with the exploited labor of ‘‘factory farms," or criticizing only the labor relations on large-scale farms while giving small ones a pass.

There's only one problem with that contention, Harrison writes: Nobody's ever really done the heavy academic lifting of actually studying the relationship between farm size and job quality for hired workers. So, she and fellow researcher Christy Getz did it, using two independently conducted, mixed-methods case studies—one on 300 organic fruit and vegetable farms in California and the other on 83 Wisconsin dairy farms of different sizes.

Their results showed that despite the differences between these two commodity sectors, large farms in both cases fared better than or no worse than smaller farms for most job quality metrics studied, with only a few exceptions.

Pay and benefits. Although the small California farms reported higher average entry-level wages, differences in top wages were negligible. For the Wisconsin dairies, entry-level hourly wages were highest on large dairy farms and lowest on medium-size farms, although the differences were not statistically significant. In both states, the larger farms were more likely to report offering nonwage benefits, including health insurance, paid time off and a paid retirement plan. It was also the larger farms in the California study that were more likely to report using formal systems to supervise and manage workers, including an employee manual, discipline and termination practices, formal grievance procedures, formal job descriptions, employment contracts and policies in Spanish. Additionally, large farms were significantly more likely than small farms to report they provide supervisors with specific guidelines or training to ensure formal respect of farmworkers. In contrast, the smaller growers tended to be more ad hoc in their worker management, depending on one-on-one contact and working side-by-side with employees.

No pay difference between large and small farms

Opportunity to advance. In the Wisconsin dairy study, farm size appeared to make no impact on the ‘‘intrinsically’’ rewarding nature of entry-level jobs on dairy farms—in other words, how well entry-level jobs keep workers interested and permit them autonomy and creativity. Big or small, farmworkers equally recognize that milking is boring, dirty and strenuous. However, the study found that workers’ opportunities to get promoted out of that low-level work increases as farms get larger. The data show small dairies, in contrast, tend to hire labor only for the tough job of milking, because the better non-milking jobs go to dairy owners and their families—who also, by nature of the business' demography, tend to be white, U.S.-born.

For their part, the smaller California growers did tend to be more likely than the large farms to claim to use more efforts to protect the safety and health of their workers by limiting handweeding or stoop labor, as well as to a set number of hours each day and pay by the hour to avoid speed-related accidents associated with piece work.

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