There’s a good deal of racism behind the whole problem. I really believe that if the farmworkers and the restaurant workers being exploited right now had blond hair and blue eyes, this country wouldn’t stand for it. Because most of these workers are Latino and many of them don’t speak English, they don’t evoke a great deal of sympathy. I’m a huge supporter of animal rightsand I’ve been an outspoken critic of the cruelties routinely inflicted on livestock at factory farms. But it really bothers me that the mistreatment of pigs and chickens and cows seems to attract a lot more attention and spark a lot more outrage than the abuse of immigrant workers. I’m all in favor of animal rights, but I’d like to see the food movement take a much stronger stand in defense of basic human rights. If you’re a vegan or a vegetarian, you should care about the people who are picking your fruits and vegetables by hand.
BE: In some ways, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Although courts have prevented many of them from taking effect, several states and municipalities have passed far-reaching anti-illegal-immigrant laws.
ES: These anti-immigrant laws are pure demagoguery. They are politically driven, in the midst of an economic downturn. It’s an attempt to find scapegoats and pick on the weak. And it’s funny how these politicians are blaming poor immigrants for all our problemsnot Wall Street banks, for some reason. It’s a form of misdirection. The number of illegal immigrants has been falling for years, as the hatred directed at them has been rising. The same thing happened during the Great Depression. Hundreds of thousands of poor Mexicans were driven out of the United Statesand then brought back once the economy picked up. When I think about who really got us into this economic mess, the poor immigrants who are picking strawberries, working in slaughterhouses, washing dishes in restaurant kitchens, and mowing lawns don’t make it to the top of my list.
BE: If you had the power to fix this system, what would you do?
ES: I would raise the federal minimum wage so that it’s roughly equivalent to what it was in the late 1960s. That would bring it to about $10.25 an hour. [The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. Eighteen states have higher minimum wages.] The only way to end poverty in this country is to make sure that everyone who works hard can feed their families and live on what they make.
And I would rigorously enforce the labor laws that are already on the books. I would enforce the laws on overtime, laws that ensure a safe workplace, laws against indenture, laws against slavery. It’s kind of amazing that in the year 2011, you still have to enforce laws against slavery and indenture. But there are untold thousands of immigrant workers in the United States who right now are being forced to work for free to pay off their debts to smugglers and labor contractors. You wrote about the problem eloquently in Tomatoland.
Once you have guaranteed a safe workplace and a decent wageand by a decent wage I mean a living wageit doesn’t matter to me if the workers are American or Mexican, Haitian or Guatemalan, Latvian or Lithuanian. They could be from Mars. All that matters is that they are not being exploited so that we can eat.
BE: Do you see any hopeful signs?
ES: I’m optimistic. In Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has won some tremendous victories on behalf of tomato workers, by putting pressure not on farmers but on the big fast-food and supermarket companies who control the industry. The coalition has provided a template for how change can happen. They’ve shown that paying an extra penny a pound for tomatoes can make a huge difference, when that penny goes directly to the workers. The same sort of arrangement could be made for other fruits and vegetables, without consumers even noticing the tiny increase in cost. Companies like Wal-Mart and the fast-food chains and the big supermarket chains need to ensure that their products are not being harvested with slave labor, that the wages and working conditions are good throughout their supply chain.
BE: With the White House organic garden and programs such as Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, the Obama administration has made overtures to promote some aspects of sustainable farming. What is its record on labor abuses in the fields?
ES: Labor Secretary Hilda Solis visited tomato fields in Florida last year and praised the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. I think that was great; it sent a strong message. And fear of the Obama administration no doubt encouraged the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to stop threatening farmers who wanted to pay workers an extra penny per pound. The administration’s heart seems to be in the right place. But real change on these issues isn’t going to come from the top. It’s going to come from consumers who care about what’s happening to these workersand who refuse to let these abuses continue.