The $64,000 Question: How Can Consumers Avoid Supporting Companies that Exploit Farmworkers
“Which companies are good? Which companies can I safely buy from without risk that their products are made by child labor or forced labor?” These are questions you get asked all the time when you work for a consumer group like the National Consumers League or if you help run an anti-child labor gorganization like the Child Labor Coalition (CLC). We would love to be able to answer these questions, but without constant monitoring, which is extraordinarily expensive and challenging, it’s extremely difficult to say which companies are doing a good job rooting out problems in their supply chains.
A little help may be coming, however. Legislation in the Washington State Assembly would require large companies to report out on labor abuses in their agricultural supply chains.
It’s well known that farm labor is one of the lowest paid, must vulnerable work forces in the U.S. Most farmers are great people. We don’t doubt that, but agricultural labor has many peculiarities which contribute to making labor exploitation more common. Much of farm labor is immigrant–a significant portion of the labor force are undocumented immigrants. “Farm workers risk being seen as disposable and invisible, stripped of their human dignity and worth,” said Indira Trejo, who works for the United Farm Workers, the legendary farmworker union that has worked to reduce labor exploitation in the fields.
On top of the increased vulnerability that comes with being an immigrant, who may have language-barrier issues, farmworkers are often hired by independent contractors—some are scrupulous and some aren’t–but the use of these crew leaders can create an extra employment layer that may make exploitation more common.
Concerned about the exploitation of farmworkers, Washington State Senator Rebecca Saldana (D-Seattle) has introduced Senate Bill 5693, the “Transparency in Agricultural Supply Chains Act. The bill applies to companies with gross global receipts of $200 million and asks them to disclose any violations of employment-related laws, including slavery, peonage (debt bondage), and human trafficking. “Consumers in our state who want to buy products that reflect their values have a right to know whether a company they purchase from is following through on its commitment to production integrity,” said Senator Saldana.
According to a report in the Columbia Basin Herald, the bill applies not just to large agricultural companies but to large retailers who sell farm products as well. “The bill would require retail sellers to annually disclose violations of employment-related laws, court or arbitration rulings, citation or other ruling by governmental agencies, and criminal convictions on their website,” noted staff writer Emma Epperly. Consumers could use this information to make better-informed purchases and avoid products linked to labor abuses. Suppliers are also required to report violations to the retailers with statutory damages ranging from $500 to $7,000.”
Adelaida Mendoza, a farmworker form Yakima Valley explained why the bill is needed in a UFW web article: “Many of us have worked for bad employers that broke the law by underpaying for the hours worked, or refusing to allow the breaks required by law,” Mendoza said. “The stores that sell those products take no responsibility for violation committed by their suppliers. This bill would change that mentality.”
The bill defines agricultural products as cocoa, dairy, coffee, sugar and fruit products. For reasons that are unclear to us, the bill considers wheat, potatoes, onions, asparagus, or other vegetables not to be agricultural products. Onion and many vegetables are common crops In the U.S. that children help harvest, so we’d love to see a broad range of vegetables added into the bill’s coverage.
Sadly, U.S. child labor laws are so weak that they allow a 12-year-old to work unlimited hours in the field (as long as the child is not missing school); as a result, much of the agricultural child labor in the U.S. is not a violation of child labor law. This is something that the CLC and AFOP, a long-serving member of the coalition have long worked to change—we’d love to see children who work in agriculture protected just like children who work in all other sectors. With respect to child labor, the transparency bill could provide some limited help: We still see children under 12 working on farms, albeit in limited numbers. Depending upon the size of the farm, this could be the type of labor violation that triggers provisions of the bill. We are also well aware that child labor is incentivized because of poor pay to farmworker parents. If the agricultural sector stops wage theft and pays parents a living wage, it will help reduce child labor.
Some Washington State farmers are not happy that he bill paints such a dire picture of agriculture. But over the years, we have seen some dramatic stories of exploitation emerge from U.S. agriculture, including some cases where farmworkers were not allowed to leave their jobs and held in slavery-like conditions, including a case in 2002 when 40 workers in New York State were held captive. Admittedly, stories like that are not common, but farmworkers often report labor violations, including work without pay.
It seems to us that the proposed transparency law will create a powerful incentive for agriculture employers and retailers to clear up the agricultural supply chains. That can only help the farmworker community as it strives to achieve a living wage, free from labor abuses. The UFW asked the CLC to endorse the bill and we readily agreed. Having worked to protect child farmworkers and improve employment conditions for adult farmworkers throughout our 30 year history, the CLC sees SB 5693 as an important step in the right direction as we move toward greater corporate transparency.
Committee members voted to advance from the Labor and Commerce Committee to the Senate Rules Committee on February 21. The legislation has some distance to go before it becomes law, but our fingers are crossed that it will.
[Update: we’ve learned that the bill did not advance to a floor vote, but there is a good likelihood it will be reintroduced in future sessions].
Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy for the National Consumers League and the coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition. He has worked on farmworker and labor exploitation issues for the last 25 years.