Letters to the Editor: Some food producers balance profit, workers' rights well

Saturday, December 27, 2003


Congratulations on The Post's well-researched exposť on farmworkers in Florida.

The reporters captured well the paradoxes -- debt servitude in the land of the free;

a market system in which "middlemen" and retailers do well, while farmers and farmworkers

are rewarded with insecurity and the smallest portions of consumers' food dollars; an industry

that rejects government regulation yet often relies upon government and charities to supply

the basic needs of its poorly paid workers; an industry that too often squeezes farmworkers

even as (or because) it is squeezed by the ever-more-concentrated retailers who buy its products.


Let us hope that employers, buyers, government leaders and consumers will start to acknowledge,

rather than deny, these paradoxes and will work to create a more coherent, just and modern system

for producing our food.

Part three of the "Modern-Day Slavery" series showed that several successful Florida agricultural

companies already have created better employment situations ("Machine harvests steadily growing").

Their businesses thrive, while they treat workers with dignity and provide decent

working and housing conditions.


Sadly, others seem to believe they must tolerate injustice in order to survive. Last year,

a major grower in Indian River County wrote me that while "farmworkers do not get a fair shake

to say the least... the only real way to eliminate mistreatment of agricultural workers will be to make

the business environment... so negative that the agricultural production moves out of this country.

Then... a majority of the agricultural workers, those who are fairly treated, will lose their jobs."


If we respect human dignity, we would not tell a person to choose between mistreatment and unemployment.

The alternative to Faustian choices is to be willing to envision new ways of doing things. Growers who have

discovered how to combine business with human rights could provide indispensable leadership and guidance

to those who have not.


It is time for society to commit to finding a way to feed ourselves, and maintain a vibrant agricultural industry,

without doing so on the backs of those who earn the least for their labor, who live with the greatest insecurity

and who have the least clout.


NANCY R. POWERS, farmworker issues consultant

Florida Catholic Conference