TEDxFruitvale’s idea worth spreading: farmworkers as people, not just items in the production chain

19 October 2011

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By Lotta Chan, CFJC Research Associate

Every food item you buy has a back story—a story many food industries never mean for you to hear.

The story could be that of a 12 year old boy, forced to work in the fields 16 hours a day, who earns only 1.4 cents per pound of tomatoes picked. Or of a mother of 4, who picks strawberries hunched over for 12 hours a day, and suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome and pains in her shoulder from the work she does on the farm. These are just a couple snapshots of farmer lives as they exist today in the United States.

Last Friday, October 14th, Bon Appetite Management Company sponsored TEDxFruitvale: Harvesting Change, a day-long conference focused on exposing these stories, building a movement for change, and mobilizing money to improve working conditions. TEDx organizers brought together farmworkers, advocates, physicians, documentarians, writers, and musicians from around the country to discuss this over-looked intersection of food and labor.

The conference started off with a group of speakers who illuminated different facets of farm life and labor practices, the details of which I admittedly knew very little about before the conference. Roberto Romano showed clips of his award-winning film The Harvest/La Cosecha, which profiles teenage migrant farmworkers. He interspersed these clips with facts from the field and current federal law, which allows 12 year olds to work all day in hot fields, but not in an air-conditioned office. They have no rights to overtime or days off, and are four times more likely than other students to drop out of school.

During the second section of the conference, speakers addressed the movement building to create fair labor conditions around the country. Maria Catalán, a third-generation migrant farmworker, came on the stage to discuss her journey from farmworker to the first Latina organic farmer in the United States. Through her farm and nonprofit, she brings resources to small-scale farmers in languages they understand. Maria represents one of many speakers present, including Gerardo Reyes-Chavez from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Arturo Rodriguez of the United Farm Workers , who talked about work they or their organizations are undertaking as part of a larger movement for fair labor practices. They are taking on some of the largest corporations in the country, such as Trader Joe’s.

The last part of the conference then turned to focus on how money can be used to create change in the industry. Sandy Brown and Adelfo Antonio of Swanton Berry Farm came to discuss their farm’s labor practices, including offering its workers health insurance, low-income housing on site, paid vacations, a pension, and stock ownership options (the only farm in the country to offer its employees such options). Sandy and Adelfo in no way tried to paint a romantic picture of their operation; they were frank and open about the financial challenges the farm faces, but showed how investing in workers has been their best investment yet.

TEDxFruitvale featured too many speakers for me to cover them all, but each of them showed the depth and commitment to the farmworker rights movement, and inspired me to become a part of it. But if any speaker tied it together for me, it was Carlos Jackson, a visual artist, writer, and art historian from UC Davis. His images taken from the 1970s labor movement were a reminder to all that farmworkers are actual people and recognizing the importance of this simple fact is essential for building our current movement. The workers who pick our tomatoes, our onions, our strawberries…they are more than just “another item in the production chain that it took to produce goods.” (The words of several growers during this time period, according to Jackson.) In the words of one campaign from the 1970s, farmworkers are “Mi Otro Yo” (The Other Me)—they are men and women just like you and me, and they deserve to be treated as such with dignity and respect.

For further information on the TEDxFruitvale conference
Read the Care Bill (HR 3564), which seeks to reform child farmworker policy

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