by Tamara Scully
Farmers in New York and other states are protesting laws aimed at raising the minimum wage. They cannot make a profit and keep farming while paying these “living wages,” or so the popular argument goes. But farm workers shouldn’t have to live on wages that don’t make it feasible for them to afford housing, food, health care, and other living expenses. It’s a quandary, and only by altering the way in which we view food and farms can farm workers, farmers and the farms themselves thrive.
Fair wages are only a part of the message delivered by Elizabeth Henderson, board member and a creator of the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP). Henderson, who is also an organic farmer, author and NOFA-NY board member, spoke at the recent NOFA-NY Organic Field Crop Conference on the topic “Making Your Farm Safe and Fair.”
The AJP is a collaboration of non-profit organizations, and has developed a certification program – Food Justice Certified – addressing fair trade in the domestic food system. It’s all an important part of the mission behind the AJP. The mission goes beyond arguing for worker wages to encompass a diversity of workers’ rights. The AJP also advocates for farmer rights.
While worker wages are often the immediate focus of farm worker rights, worker safety is an important aspect in food justice. Farming is a dangerous occupation. Hours are long and exempt from overtime laws. Benefits, such as vacation pay and medical care, are typically not offered. Stress and fatigue increase the risk of injury.
The AJP addresses safety issues by including them in the definitions of basic worker rights. Safety on the farm is one prong of the food justice equation. Safety – whether from toxins, equipment, fire, confined spaces, slips and falls, weather, noise, workplace harassment or violence, or unsanitary conditions – is the basis for fair farm worker treatment.
Training is an obvious but often overlooked aspect of worker rights. If the dangers of the occupation aren’t discussed, or if the proper procedures and best practices for safely completing farm tasks aren’t being followed, someone will get hurt. And fostering an environment where employees can discuss their concerns without fear of retribution is imperative. Because the children of farm workers may be present on the farm, providing a safe child-friendly area is important.
While all farms can follow AJP guidelines for equitable farming practices, including safety standards, farmers can apply for official third-party certification under the AJP’s Food Justice certified label. Very small farms can opt to take the Food Justice Pledge in lieu of certification.
Food Justice Certified
Food Justice certification is about fair trade from seed to table. It grew out of the lack of attention paid to farm worker treatment when National Organic Program standards were developed, but it also includes provisions for fair prices paid to farmers, transparent contracts and agreements, and ethical treatment of workers and animals all along the food chain.
While organic certification pays a lot of attention to the health of the environment and that of the produce being grown or the livestock being raised, it doesn’t expand that focus to the overall well being of the farmer or farm workers. This “social sustainability” standard on which the AJP is based also encompasses interns, children, apprentices, buyers, indigenous people, food service workers and anyone else involved in the growing, selling, serving, processing or buying of food.
Food Justice certification is available to all farms and to food businesses that meet the standards, whether or not they are certified organic. But the program is aimed to move producers away from the use of harmful chemicals, and towards natural farming practices. Toolkits, available at the website www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org offer guidance. Certification can be completed by many organic certification agencies as well as some worker representative organizations. The three tiers of the program allow certification for farms, for processors, and for food vendors.
Food Justice Certified farms are required to follow standards encompassing all aspects of worker safety and fairness. Conflict resolution, collective bargaining rights, transparent contracts with disciplinary steps and employment terms outlined, access to medical care, one day of rest per week, timely payments, and sick days (paid or not), are some of the worker right standards. Certified farms also have to facilitate the ability of workers’ children to attend school, offer compensation so that adequate childcare can be provided, and employ farm workers directly whenever it is possible to do so.
Food Justice Buyer certification requires that food businesses purchasing from farms practice fair pricing and payment practices. Certified Buyers must provide farmers with fair contracts, transparent pricing formulas, and work to increase farmer payments by sharing some of the profits. Farmers must have the right to collectively bargain, and certified buyers must work to develop long-term relationships with farmers. Minimum fair price provisions, to protect the farmer from market fluctuation, are also encouraged in certain situations.
Processors certified under the Food Justice label can only use the label on multi-ingredient products if the vast majority of the ingredients are sourced under the program. At least 95 percent of the product by dry weight must be from Food Justice certified farms or the label cannot be utilized, to prevent truth in labeling abuses. Otherwise, the ingredients which individually qualify can be listed as “Food Justice certified” on the ingredients list.
Developing an equitable food system can’t simply begin and end with raising the minimum wage for farm employees. Unless farmers themselves are paid fairly for their food, they often don’t have the financial resources to do better by their workers and still remain in business. It will take a consumer movement, based on a desire to purchase food from sustainable farmers, a better understanding of the true cost of food production, and a willingness and ability to help pay for that cost, to help rebuild a food system based on fair trade, environmental sustainability, and worker respect.