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Going behind the barcodes

By Divya Amladi
The sweet potatoes in our groceries come from workers who have to endure abuses. Photo: Pixabay

Interviewing North Carolina farm workers who pick the food in our grocery stores

It’s late August in eastern North Carolina, temperatures are edging into the 90s, and it’s so humid that my shorts are stuck to my legs. Being outside means I’m outlined by a swarm of gnats that fly into my eyes and ears and bite incessantly at my feet.

But none of that matters. I’m in North Carolina, land of sweet potatoes—nearly 60 percent of sweet potatoes in the US come from farms here—to interview farmworkers, many of whom are within Whole Foods’ supply chain. My discomfort is nothing compared to what they deal with every day as they pick food for our grocery stores.

At the moment, I’m waiting with my Oxfam colleagues in a “safe location” for Ramón* and Pedro* to come and talk with us. These two young men work at a farm that supplies sweet potatoes to Whole Foods. We couldn’t meet at their home because they’re afraid that if they’re seen talking to us, their agricultural work visas will be revoked and they’ll face deportation—or another form of retaliation. We’re not sure when they’re coming, though, because workers have no control over their schedules. If Ramón and Pedro don’t show up at the dinner their grower provides, it will raise suspicions.

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The Farm Labor Organizing Committee introduced Pedro (second from right) to unionized workers. Photo: Lianne Milton/Panos for Oxfam America

They show up just as the sun is going down. It’s clear they’re nervous about talking to us. But, through the help of our partners at the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), the men are now aware of their rights, and they are ready to stand up for themselves and their compaῆeros.

Robbed of power and rights

The list of indignities Pedro, Ramón, and other workers endure is long—and basic: sub-standard housing, meager wages ($1 per bucket of sweet potatoes picked), fee deductions from their weekly wages for meals—whether they eat them or not—no on-site bathrooms, and no tools or gear.

Leticia Zavala, a FLOC organizer and former agricultural worker, explained the little control farm workers have over their lives.

“You’re brought in with a grower, and your immigration status is tied to that grower,” she said. “What we’re seeing right now is that a lot of farm labor contractors are using the same practices coyotes used back in the day. They tend to do a lot of wage theft, controlling of workers, and they’ll manipulate and scare the workers from defending themselves.”

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Mercedes, 67, works through a rain storm on a sweet potato field in North Carolina. Her employer provided no rain gear for field work. Photo: Lianne Milton/Panos for Oxfam America

Earlier that day, I met Victoria,* 45, who has been working on North Carolina farms for about a decade. It was pouring; she spoke to us from the field where she was waiting for the rain to stop so she and others could salvage sweet potatoes before they rotted. Victoria had been up since 4:30 a.m., when she had to get ready for work, and expected to be working the fields until at least 7 p.m.

Victoria and Mercedes,* 67, another crew member, were not provided any raingear and their supervisor wouldn’t allow them to leave the fields to seek protection from the storm. They waited in the rain for an hour.

Many workers like Mercedes and Victoria are undocumented, so they are at the mercy of their employers. “Usually the workers depend on growers for housing, they depend on them for transportation, they depend on them for their work,” said Zavala. “So, when there’s injustices, it’s a lot more difficult to stand up for yourself because you depend on them for everything.”

Standing up for a more dignified life

Our last interview with Honesto* underscored that point. When we met him, he was fixing up a small trailer he purchased in anticipation of being fired. He has been working in North Carolina for 13 years, and he enjoys the work. However, for at least two or three years, Honesto has been paid $1.50 less per hour than other members of his crew for the same work.

He and nine others worked up the courage to file a lawsuit against their employer to claim equal wages. Now, he lives in fear of retaliation. Losing his job means losing his home since his housing is provided by his employer. That trailer is his insurance for a future.

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Honesto is fixing up a trailer home in case his employer fires him for demanding fair wages. Photo: Lianne Milton/Panos for Oxfam America

Entering a Whole Foods’ supplier’s housing unit would be trespassing, so we were not able to see inside any of those housing units for ourselves. We met a man named Sergio* who lived in a cramped and dilapidated house with 10 other men and no air conditioning. Having walked off a job site and joined the union, Sergio now worked for a grower who he says treats workers well. Despite the tight quarters, this was “nice” housing, so I could only imagine what it was like behind the thresholds we weren’t allowed to cross.

Zavala told us that agricultural workers are exempt from many labor laws and that housing regulations for migrant workers in North Carolina are lacking. “We just won mattresses for beds a few years back, because before they weren’t required,” she said. “There’s just basic housing needs met—no air conditioning, no heat—most of the time.”

What was most striking is that every single person we spoke with told us they do not mind hard labor. In fact, coming from agricultural backgrounds in Mexico and Guatemala, people told us they enjoy working the land. That wasn’t the issue.

“This work is really hard, and we all have families in Mexico to feed,” a worker named Mauricio* said. “Things are bad in Mexico, and we don’t come here to cause problems or anything.”

The workers’ requests were basic: equipment, protective gear, on-site bathrooms, enough food to keep them going through the day, and fair pay so they can send money back home to help their families out of poverty. Most of all, they want to be treated with dignity, to have their rights recognized, and not be seen as a disposable workforce.

Small steps forward

Since our trip, Pedro and Ramón have begun working with FLOC to organize the roughly 300 workers on their farm and demand fair pay from their employer.

And we’re seeing larger changes in the system, too. Amazon, Whole Foods’ parent company, released updated supplier policies to tackle human rights abuses, and they have agreed to hire a senior level executive to oversee human rights and labor standards. These are steps in the right direction. They demonstrate the company’s progress on workers’ rights, but there's so much more they can to address human rights, transparency, gender equality, and corporate governance.

That’s why we’re calling on you to use your power as a consumer to ask supermarkets, particularly Whole Foods, to end the human suffering behind the food they put in their stores.

*Names changed to maintain privacy

Help end human suffering behind the food we eat.

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