The Horrifying Human Cost of Food: Worker Exploitation

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Many foods used to be seasonal. They also used to be unique to certain regions. Trade deals, relative ease of travel and advances in food preservation have made it possible to enjoy foods out of season and all over over the globe all the time.

The horrifying human cost of food: worker exploitation

Add to this food fads that demand out-of-season foods to be eaten year round and a focus on the lowest cost possible, and it’s easy to see how humans have become disconnected from food systems. This becomes even more apparent, when we whine about issues like human rights, not considering the humans who toil to put that quinoa, coconut, tomato sauce or orange juice in our pantry or fridge.

I’m not pointing fingers here. Canned tomatoes go on the shopping list when I’m about to hit the big box store. Not many people don’t love to save money or have some creature comforts on hand.

That said, I make efforts to buy directly from farmers and other food purveyors with faces, where possible. Money saved by becoming more self-sufficient and resourceful in the kitchen or other parts of my life enable us to increase the amount of money spent on filling our bellies ensuring that everyone from my farmers to my tax preparers earn a living wage. I know I fall short in many places, but the attempt to remain conscious is hopefully there.

Worker Exploitation

Unfortunately, this phenomenon isn’t unique to far off places in the third world without laws to protect workers as some would have you believe. When I first moved to Hawaii eight years ago, I was horrified to learn that there were at least 1000 migrants working for little to no pay. This explained a lot about one farmer’s operations, whose workers always seemed demoralized and barely able to speak English. A friend, who knew this farmer, confirmed that these women worked for less than half the minimum wage.

This was not nearly as horrifying as media reports I had read some years prior of migrants in Florida seeking a legal path to residency. Upon arriving in the US, they would then become beholden to those who brought them across the border working for pennies and chained to one another all in the name of bringing common foods like peas, beans and corn to market for a price we are willing to pay.

Sadly, the US isn’t the only place this happens. Many citizens of developing nations are promised a better standard of living for work on European farms only to find that life back home was way more civilized than what they are met with.

Even if it’s not on so-called ‘first world’ soil, working conditions are not any better on farms in other countries that serve us.

Modern Slavery

What boggles my mind the most about this system is why is this level of human degradation necessary? It is hard to see these living conditions and not feel that the intent is to dehumanize these workers just as chattle slavery did for African-Americans.

Maybe I could throw these corporations a bone, if they didn’t subject these workers to such squalid conditions, while paying them low wages. But they aren’t even doing that. They are literally going out of their way to provide the least sanitary, human living conditions possible to these people. I guarantee you that the pets of the people running these operations have a far higher standard of living.

To make matters worse, they have to pay for living in this filth, showers, food etc. This reality is not unlike the 19th century colonization of Africa, where self-sufficient villages were burnt down and inhabitants were “offered” work on plantations controlled by European powers, suddenly becoming vulnerable to extreme poverty and starvation.

Alas, their allegiance isn’t to workers or any sense of morality. It is to shareholders. Let’s not be too hasty to point fingers as many of us are unwittingly party to this travesty. Many jobs provide us with “benefits” in the form of 401Ks. These are the very types of companies that rotate in and out of those 401Ks on a regular basis.

Investment advisors tell us to keep putting money in regularly because historically these funds always increase. Few of us ask, how and why this would be the case. Yet we look forward to the day when we can kick up our heels and live off of the interest earned on what we aren’t told may be the backs of others.

Corporations only understand money. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Black Americans knew that no longer taking the bus would hit bus companies upholding racist policies in the pocketbook. It was hard and took determination to walk EVERYWHERE, but the message was received and change happened.

The food issue requires moving away from our consumerist ways and finding alternatives to investing. Crafts can be made out of junk mail instead of pristine white paper. Plastic bags can be reused for any variety of projects in the garden or around the house. Old towels and sponges can be reused for cleaning up dirty floors and toilets instead of disposable wipes. Those are just a few places where we can offset the cost of slightly more expensive food from farmers with faces.

With 40% increases in the cost of industrial fertilizer, you may be surprised to find that locally grown organic real food is actually cheaper than conventional where you are. That’s because real farmers operate with mostly self-contained systems that require little to no input from off their own land. Going small — at least for food — is clearly the way. This, in turn, is better for your health, meaning less illness and lowered healthcare expenses. This could easily undermine multiple corrupt entities.

worker exploitation

Making demands of corporations doesn’t work, if we continue to patronize them. Investing in a 401K, then bitching about the very pharmaceutical and junk food companies in your portfolio does nothing to shift the system. If we want change, we need to stop demanding business to continue as usual.

The onus is upon us to think of the people who grow, harvest and prepare our food every time we eat. Until all of us are raised up, none of us are. If you think I’m exaggerating, just remember that they’re coming after you next. It wasn’t that long ago that many people in the West were perfectly comfortable with medical experiments on the “sick” citizens of third world countries, but now are feeling assaulted.

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