Chinese peasants reaping benefits of rising food prices

Article after article has come to the news regarding the alarmingly high inflation levels for food prices in China. Initially blamed on seasonal and weather-related effects or tied to the price of global commodities, it has become clear that booming food prices represent larger structural change. China’s current dual track system, forming a transitional government from its former command economy to a more market-driven economy, may be partially the cause.  Others have pointed to a steadily expanding economy or the changing make-up of Chinese exports.  Whatever the driving force might be, food prices have gone up by 11.7% this year alone and in some cities the prices of basic commodities like rice, cooking oil and vegetables have risen by 100%.

So what does this situation mean for the workers?  In fact, some argue that rising food prices might in some part be the result of improving working conditions.  Frequent labor protests throughout China have led to raises in the minimum wage and improving conditions for industrial workers have pulled agricultural workers into the factories.  This subsequent drop in farm workers has led to a labor shortage that has allowed for increasing wages for farm workers and a food shortage resulting in spiking food prices.  Though these prices mean a higher income percentage paid for food, the more than 600 million rural peasants of China could actually reap the benefits.

Food shortages have required an increased demand for agricultural product and a rising call for farm workers themselves.  While higher food prices are pulling at the pockets of China’s urban dwellers, a Business China article argues that “The increases this year in food prices have done more, in a shorter time, to lift income levels for many of China’s 600 million peasants than any other single measure taken over the last 30 years.”  According to official Chinese media outlets, wages for farm workers have increased by as much as 100%.

While the Chinese government continues to frantically open up extra food supply stock and encourage farmers to produce more food next year, there clearly is an upside to this problem.  The poorest members of the Chinese community may finally be reaping the benefits.  Rising wages throughout China mean that an increasing food bundle price may not have the harrowing impact that some speculators predict.  Although continued rapid inflation overall is cause for concern and should be properly addressed through the strengthening of currently fixed Chinese currency, it must be acknowledged that the balance might finally be shifting back a bit toward agricultural workers.

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Microcredit for Farm Workers?

Microfinance involves extending small loans to persons in poverty to promote entrepreneurship.  The loans can range from just $100 to typically no more than $5,000.  Having developed an interest in microfinance as a development strategy, I was curious to see what sort of role microcredit has played in supporting agricultural initiatives and farm workers.

Agricultural microcredit is alive and well, but this sector carries unique and sometimes trying factors that separate it from other industries that have been helped by microfinance.  Since agricultural work is inherently tied to variables such as weather conditions and pest exposure, results become more difficult to predict.  Unlike a grocery store or a craft stand financed by a loan, farm workers cannot be guaranteed that their product will be available for sale.  For this reason, agricultural microfinance is considered to carry a greater financial risk for lenders. This risk is detailed in this article on microfinance risk management.

Many microcredit programs focus on rural agriculture or dedicate a portion of their organization to this sector.  Two interesting organizations are the Palli Karma Sahayak Foundation (PKSF) of Bangladesh and the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) of Lancaster, PA.

PKSF was established by the government of Bangladesh in 1990 as a non-profit organization to deliver microcredit through nongovernmental organizations to those in poverty.  In the financial year 2008-09, PKSF disbursed Tk. 18,190 million through 229 microfinance institutions.  In the past year, the Bangladesh government set a goal of substantially increasing the amount of agricultural credit that it provides to farmers throughout Bangladesh.  Since about 60% of the country’s population depends on agriculture activities for its livelihood, an increase in small loans to these workers could dramatically aid development and food production.  PKSF is expected to be one of the leading organizations in promoting this credit since it has experience lending to this sector.

MEDA works to promote rural economic development and agriculture finance through a diverse set of programs throughout the globe.  MEDA currently has programs in Haiti, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Tajikistan, Peru, Afghanistan, Egypt, Morocco, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Tanzania, Ukraine, and Zambia.   MEDA focuses on five areas: microfinance, production and marketing linkages, investment fund development, community economic development, and member services. The success of these areas and their implications for future agricultural microcredit programs is detailed in this article by Meagan Andrews, a Senior Microfinance Consultant at MEDA.  MEDA programs work to provide small loans and basic training to farmers in developing countries.  For example, in 2006-2010, MEDA promoted Garden Gate, a project in Afghanistan that helped improve both the quality and quantity of food produced by family garden plots.  The program provided training for 90 lead farmers and specialized programs for the women of each village, aiding 2,349 women.

These microfinance programs help provide farm workers who already own farms with the knowledge and tools to more productively use their land.   For landless workers, these loans can help provide initial funding to lease land or to build up resources.   Although these loans may be riskier than other forms of microcredit, funding to agriculture helps an enormous portion of the world’s population and promotes the existence of small and family-owned farms.  It is exciting to see the work that NGOs are doing to aid these workers and I am hopeful that other organizations will use groups like MEDA and PFSK as models for their own agricultural microcredit programs.

The form of microcredit used by most organizations currently is attributed to 2006 Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank. To read more about his work, check out his book, Banker to the Poor.

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Movie Reviews

Food Inc., A Good Start

Fair Food: Field to Table, A Good Addition

Food Inc. provided a great introduction for thousands of people beginning to think critically about the food system. It took on a lot in its scope, from factory slaughterhouses, to issues of hunger, to food safety, to the loss of farmland, to corporate control of genetic seed varieties. There’s an overwhelming amount to process once you begin to think about making change in how this country eats. What surprised me about the film was that it talked about what so many analyses about food and sustainability miss these days: farm workers. Farm workers are such a critical component of our food making it to our tables and yet they are far from the general public’s mind and are very often off the radar of even to food activists. Food Inc. was admirable in its complexity; the filmmakers’ chose to discuss not only dangerous working conditions in the fields but also briefly raised questions about the heated topic of immigration and the exploitation that many undocumented workers face. But with the film’s lofty breadth came the reality that each issue could only just be touched upon. My main criticism of the movie was that it lacked a central analysis that could cohesively frame what is at the heart of the problems of our foods system. I admit this would have been no easy task, but I left the theater with a vivid reminder that many problems exist but not with the sense that these problems were all linked. While discussing farm workers was important, it felt like just another disjointed piece of a failing system.

In many ways, farm worker conditions seem an important and helpful place to begin our discussions about agriculture. By first looking to farm workers’ conditions we make sure to ground our analysis in the lives of the most exploited group of people in our country. By beginning with farm workers we can remind ourselves of the most direct human costs of our failed food system. From farm workers we can begin to understand the role of corporate profiteering in the food system through worker exploitation. We can see the dangers of pesticide from worker exposure on the front lines of the fields. We can understand the ways in which worker safety and food safety must be accomplished hand in hand. We can see the flagrant disparity of who has access to healthy food by the fact that the very people who pick our food often can’t afford to eat it themselves. By keeping our eyes on farm workers we are guided to the heart of many of the justice issues at stake in how we produce our food.

With this in mind I was happy to stumble across a new film produced by The Fair Food Project called “Fair Food: Field to Table.” The short movie focuses entirely on farm workers and begins to flush out what was just touched upon in Food Inc. The film is in three parts. It begins with a segment of farm workers articulating what exploitations they face. The second segment focuses on growers who are finding responsible and profitable ways to justly employ farm workers. The final segment gives an overview of both farm worker and ally led organizing efforts to improve the structural problems facing farm workers. The movie is brief, so it can’t say it all but it does provide a great introduction to problems of farm labor and highlights much of the impressive organizing currently taking place. The list of collaborators on the film is long and packed full of some of the most thoughtful, and powerful organizations working for farm worker justice. So go and supplement your Food Inc. knowledge and check out!

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New York’s Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act: A Look at Both Sides

New York’s Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act: A Look at Both Sides

This past August 3rd, 2010, the New York State Senate struck down New York’s Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, legislation that would improve existing labor conditions for New York farmworkers. Those in support of the bill hoped to ultimately give farmworkers equal protection and rights covered by the National Labor Relations Act of 1938, covering collective bargaining rights, one optional day of rest a week, 8-hour workdays, overtime pay for more than 40 hours/week, and unemployment insurance coverage. With 28 in favor and 31 against the bill, the fight for justice in New York farm fields was close, but not close enough.

According to labor advocates, the fight for fair agricultural working conditions in New York began 15 years ago when a group of farmworkers, while testifying in a number of legislative hearings, became aware of their exclusion from basic labor laws. With the support of labor advocacy, student, and/or religious organizations such as the Rural & Migrant Ministry, these workers went on to found the Farmworker Justice Campaign in the hopes of gaining fair labor standards for all farmworkers. In response to campaign pressure, New York enacted many commendable provisions and protections for its farmworkers, such as stricter sanitary codes for farmworker housing, stricter sanitation and drinking water requirements in its fields, worker’s compensation coverage by all but small farms for farmworkers, a farmworker minimum wage that matches the federal minimum wage, and a human trafficking statute.

Since 1999, however, the state has failed to pass any further legislation to address agricultural labor conditions despite continued pressure from labor interests. According to Richard Witt, Executive Director of the Rural & Migrant Ministry, “It’s an issue of justice, fairness and equality… There needs to be equality in the law.” Labor interests believe farmworkers laboring in one of the most dangerous and physically taxing industries deserve equal protection and rights as all workers. By providing these benefits to New York farmworkers, those who cultivate our daily food will be protected from existing and potential exploitation, neglect and injustice.

On the other hand, the New York Farm Bureau and many New York farmers stand in stark opposition to the New York Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. Although many claim to care for farmworker rights, they believe this bill, also referred to as the “Farm Death Bill”, will force small, family farms out of business. In the words of Assemblyman Cliff Crouch, “Bills like the ‘Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act’ will raise the cost of farming in New York State, forcing farmers to close their family farms, killing jobs and making local produce harder to find for New York families.” With an estimated cost of $200 million annually, the bill will not only hurt agriculture but also the statewide economy as a whole.

For farmers and the New York Farm Bureau, universal overtime pay, unemployment insurance coverage, and collective bargaining rights are the most controversial components of the Act. Overtime pay alone could increase labor costs by 15%-25%, an increase many farmers would not be able to afford. Apart from cost alone, many believe overtime pay should not apply to the agricultural industry at all. An industry whose inherent nature implies seasonal periods of either intensive work or little to no work requires overtime work from both farmers and their employees due to the demands of seasonal farming, not the oppressive demands of an employer. Furthermore, farmers in all likelihood will develop employment or farm practice strategies to avoid the added costs of overtime pay, such as hiring more workers but limiting each worker’s hours/week, mechanizing production, or downsizing their farm to rely on family labor. For temporary and permanent farmworkers who either need a job or want more than 40 hours/week, the overtime pay requirement could actually hurt instead of help them.

Unemployment insurance coverage for farmworkers would also significantly increase labor costs, paperwork and compliance activities for farms, according to the NY Farm Bureau. Small farms that have previously been exempt from paying for coverage would certainly face financial hardship due to this added cost, potentially costing more than the short-term employment of the worker. In addition, many of the covered migrant and seasonal workers would not receive the intended benefits. Universal worker coverage will actually act as a tax on farmers as most migrant or seasonal workers, who are typically employed for short periods of time, will not be eligible to collect unemployment insurance.

Opponents to the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act also believe the right to collectively bargain will irreparably hurt NY farms. With unionization rights, workers can make unwarranted demands, threaten to strike during harvesting or planting time, and potentially put a farm out of business by doing so. Additionally, the logistical aspects of collective bargaining are inherently flawed for migrant and seasonal farmworkers. In general, unionization will be time consuming, costly and impractical for migrant or seasonal workers who come and go with the season. New York’s “closed shop” requirement would also disadvantage seasonal or migrant workers who, without having voted for their representative union, would involuntarily have to pay membership dues to be employed by any farmer.

In response to these arguments, labor interests such as the Rural & Migrant Ministry point out that the Bureau has merely repeated the same stories of financial woe and ruin from the 1990’s when the Bureau tried to prevent housing sanitation, field sanitation and water requirements, and farmworker minimum wage reform. At the time, the Bureau claimed that small farms would not be able to foot the bill and the state would see a significant loss in production. Although the state has seen a high rate of farm foreclosure and decreased productivity, labor interests suggest that small farms more so face financial hardship and foreclosure due to the corporatization of agriculture than due to increased labor costs. In fact, equal rights for farmworkers would help level the playing field between agribusiness and the “family farmer”. By increasing labor costs for large farms that dump markets with cheap products subsidized by a large, cheap labor force, small family farms that the New York Bureau claims to support will actually have a better competitive edge.

Despite this never-ending debate of equality vs. economic capability, reforms were drawn up for the New York Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act in order to address some of the Bureau’s concerns. In December of 2009 through a series of meetings, farm and labor interests made significant changes to the bill, including:

  • changing the standard workday and workweek from 8 to 10 hours per day and from 40 to 60 hours per week, respectively, with the weekly workweek dropping to 55 hours in 2013
  • applying collective bargaining rights only to farms with gross sales greater than $650,000 during the previous calendar year instead of all farms, providing for conflict resolution, and placing contingencies on strike or lock out actions
  • excluding farmers’ obligation to pay unemployment taxes on H-2A workers.

Although labor advocates considered these concessions a compromise, the Bureau

continued to oppose the Act. In Richard Witt’s opinion, “We have made concessions in the past and yet the Farm Bureau, who says they want to help farmworkers, does not propose or support any legislation to protect them.” He believes that the Bureau falsely uses the guise of the “family farm” to protect the interests of large, corporate farms who depend upon the current system of cheap labor for a comparative advantage.

It was his use of the word “system”, however, that made me question whether the debate is truly addressing the heart of the issue. Instead of single-mindedly focusing on legislation that addresses labor conditions, maybe labor interests and small farm interests should look towards creating systematic change to the overall food system in order to protect the interests of both farmers and farmworkers. For example, one farmer opposed to the Farm Bill stated, “We are price takers, not price makers” and as such, cannot be expected to take on these expenses at current prices. If so, existing and future legislation shouldn’t expect farmers to take on the entire cost of improving labor conditions. Instead, the increased cost of fair labor should be distributed along the food chain of production, processing, and consumption, alleviating the financial burden for farmers and making all food consumers responsible for fair agricultural labor. Until legislation is drawn up that includes both fair labor conditions and systematic reform to price setting for food products, New York should continue to protect small farmers by exempting them from some of the added labor costs included in the Act. This compromise would significantly improve working conditions on large farms where the majority of farmworkers are employed while simultaneously maintaining economic opportunity for small farms to grow and prosper in an increasingly competitive and global market.

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Factory Workers And Farm Workers Should Be Working Together

Meat packers make 29% less than the average manufacturing wage, while laboring in one of the most dangerous forms of industry.

Most labor advocates would agree that low wages and poor working conditions couple to make meat processing among the worst forms of work in the United States. Driven by consumer demand and government policy, livestock producers are constantly exploring mechanisms for producing cheap, quality, meat. Even within the complex realm of food politics, the politics of meat processing stand out as particularly contentious and troublesome.

Before I explain why, I should touch on why I think that this is an important topic to have on a blog about farm labour. As many of us understand, recent history has transformed American agriculture into a large-scale, vertically-integrated system of production. Much of our food comes to us after passing through a complex network of fields and factories, all of which are controlled by a relatively small number of corporations and interest-groups. Agriculture, processing and distribution are all parts of the same system of food production, and the people at the top of that system are often the same.

Laborers in food processing often suffer from some of the same vulnerabilities and abuses as laborers in the fields. Slaughterhouses, processing facilities and meatpacking plants all rely on exploited labor, driven by a demand for cheap food, and sustained by lax governmental regulation. Labor abuses at every level of food production should demand our attention because they are sustained by some of the same interests.

As with field workers, food producers generally experiment with altering one of two variables in order to lower prices: the treatment of animals, or the treatment of workers. The treatment of workers in meat processing plants is thus notoriously poor. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has noted that workers in poultry processing “have consistently suffered injuries and illnesses at a rate more than twice the national average” over the past thirty years.

Condemnation of the industry is widespread among animal rights and labor activists, and one does not have to search for long to find evidence of poor working conditions and labor abuses.

Last year, for example, the U.S. Department of Labor was forced to sue Henry’s Turkey Service after finding that it was paying mentally retarded workers $65 per month to work in an Iowan processing plant.

In 1991, twenty-five workers were killed and 54 injured when a fire broke out at the Imperial Foods processing plant in North Carolina. The plant had no sprinklers, fire alarms, or working phones, and had not been inspected in eleven years. More troubling, the workers had all been locked inside when their boss had suspected them of stealing meat.

Examples like these should be evidence that – in many ways – workers in processing are subject to the same abuses as workers in the fields. Processing plants rely on cheap labor and avoid labor organization by hiring a financially vulnerable, and largely immigrant, workforce.

But there is always a silver lining, and this realization creates an opportunity for greater cooperation within organizing. I love the idea that labor organizing could be a more collaborative endeavor, with different groups working together and drawing from each others’ successes. As was highlighted here earlier this week, there are organizations such as The Food Chain Workers Alliance who work to combat labor abuses within the food system as a whole, contemplating how workers in different fields can cooperate in order to bring about meaningful reform.

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The Midterm Elections Aren’t Bad News For The 2012 Farm Bill

Last Summer, I was feeling pretty optimistic about opportunities for change within the upcoming 2012 Farm Bill.

Already, hearings by the House Agriculture Committee had indicated that this Bill might be characterized by greater citizen involvement (meaning that lobbies were no longer the only ones attending these meetings and having their voices heard). Advocates who were concerned about child nutrition, animal rights, and environmental protection had turned out in surprising numbers in 2008, and these groups were returning this year with even greater force. Even the head of the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson, had noted that he thoughts it would “be very difficult to pass a status-quo farm bill in 2012.”

There was even a space for labor advocates; as was written here back in October, there was certainly hope that “if labor groups mobilize for 2012 as conservationists and nutritionists did for 2008, farm workers could win a few nominal nods”.

Now, just over a month later, the political climate has shifted dramatically. The mid-term elections in November have changed the partisan structure of our Congress. The results – massive republican gains – have induced anxiety among democrats and liberals who were excited about pushing for legislative reform and moving beyond the political status quo.

Although they are still unclear, these changes will have important implications for our food and farm policy.

The drafting of the 2012 Farm Bill takes place primarily within the Agriculture Committees in the House and Senate. This November, sixteen of the twenty-eight Democrats on the House Committee lost their seats, as did Senate Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln.

Clearly, new leadership and membership will change the rhetoric of the Committees.  But I am actually not convinced that Democratic losses need to thwart reform in 2012. In fact, I am still optimistic that change is possible if citizens mobilize in favor of reform. Beyond this, I am hopeful that the openings in the Agriculture Committees might be filled by a different breed of politician, who will listen to different interest groups and look critically at our commodity policies.

The implications of the 2010 elections are still unclear, but I hope that labor groups – in particular – will not be put off by what feels like a climate of political disillusionment and uncertainty. As was evidenced in the 2008 Farm Bill, grassroots advocacy can have real and meaningful implications for our federal policy.

For a really great analysis of how the mid-term elections might impact our Farm Bill, check out Andy Fisher’s article on Civil Eats, where he asks how we can translate the public’s interest in reform into real policy change.

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Líderes Campesinas: Fighting for Women’s Rights in Farm Work

Women farm workers face extra challenges in an already severe work environment. Women often face hiring discrimination, sexual assault, and reproductive problems related to pesticide exposure. They are also burdened with childcare and homemaking in addition to their demanding work in the fields. Maria Carmona of Pasadena explained a typical day in her life as a woman farm worker,

“After working in the fields, you come home exhausted. As a woman, when you get home, you don’t lay down and rest or turn on the television or drink a beer like the men do. You have to keep cleaning, sweeping, washing dishes, and cooking. Sometimes you have to keep on working until late at night. Then, you hardly have time to sleep before you have to wake up in the morning and do it all over again—making lunch for everyone, preparing things for the family, and going back to work. That’s the experience that thousands of farmworker women live through every day (Rothenberg, p.55).”

In California, women make up more than half of the states’ 1.2 million farm workers. Líderes Campesinas (translates as Women Farm Worker Leaders) was founded in 1988 in California’s Coachella valley to specifically address the problems of women farm workers in the state. In the past two decades, their groundwork has expanded to include eight chapters throughout CA. Their model works to empower and train women farm workers to become organizers in their communities. They describe themselves as “an organization for and by campesinas, offer[ing] programs consisting of workshops, presentations, and discussions for and by women and girls based on their needs as working women.”

How they operate:

Each year, Líderes Campesinas trains over 3,000 women and girls. They do this through hosting house parties that use theater and popular education techniques to educate new women about empowerment and the resources that they can access. They also hold training sessions for women and girls who are interested in actively organizing with the group. The group continuously puts on community events/ information sessions to make their resources visible and available to the larger community. Líderes provides legal and social services and advocacy for women who often don’t know these services exist and when they do are often turned away from public services due to rampant anti-immigrant racism. Through their “train-the-trainer type educational” philosophy, Líderes Campesinas is gradually building a network of organizers working to address the pressing needs of farm worker communities in CA.

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