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Improving Food Worker Livelihoods: An Interview with UFWA’s Erik Nicholson

Erik Nicholson, National Vice President of United Farm Workers of America (UFWA), has worked extensively on helping farm workers and their families avoid the damages of pesticide exposure. He has served as one of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's two national farm-worker representatives on its national pesticide advisory committee, the Pesticide Program Dialog Committee, and helped organize the first national guest-worker union contract. The UFWA, founded in 1962 by Cesar Chavez, is the nation's first successful and largest farm workers union.

Can you please contextualize the work you do, in what has become a global system of agriculture?

We are now importing the majority of the food we eat. The overwhelming majority of workers who harvest the food we eat in the United States are not from this country. And many if not most of the workers employed in the fields in the United States are displaced farmers from their own countries (mostly Mexico but not exclusively). So we're seeing that many of the same pressures and challenges that are facing farmers in the U.S. are the very same ones that are displacing small farmers in the global South and resulting in them coming in search of employment to the United States, Canada, Australia, and European Union. At the same time, farmers and sometimes their spouses in the U.S. are looking for second jobs in more urban settings.

When Vietnam entered the global market with coffee, we saw an unprecedented exodus of coffee farmers out of eastern Mexico. When NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] was signed, mass exodus of corn farmers [took place] - so we see a direct correlation between these international trade policies and agricultural practices and kind of the global crisis of agriculture that we're facing.

Within that context, you look at agriculture in the United States and pretty much anyone born in this country has no aspirations to work in the fields. And I think if we're honest with ourselves, the reason is because we all know the conditions are not good, the pay is pretty bad, and there's really no benefits. As a result, we have depended on immigrant workers to come up and do the work that we haven't wanted to do. And so if you look at the history of the United Farm Workers, we've had workers literally from around the world as members - from Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Yemen, African-Americans, and, of course, Mexicans, Central Americans - and the internationalization of the workforce continues. We now have workers working under contract from Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, and it's very much become a global workforce that is harvesting the food we eat.

UFW recently hosted an international gathering of farm workers from 14 different countries. Can you share some of your impressions of that gathering?

It was just amazing to have people who are doing the same work we've been doing for 50 years in the United States, together in the same room. We were in awe of just how bad it is out there. We think it's bad here, and then you talk to folks from Ecuador or Peru, who come to the States telling us, "What are you guys complaining about? You don't know the half of it." And so as we really compared notes, the contexts were different, but it was appalling just how bad it is for farm workers across the world. That was sobering.

But at the same time, it was tremendously exciting to meet people who give a damn, and who are actually out there in the trenches trying to make a difference. It was a very lively conversation. We did a lot of work just getting to know each other and the different contexts in which we're working and actively looking for ways to collaborate. One of the first things that came to mind for all of us was that we need to educate the world about how bad it is for farm workers, and why everyone who eats should care! We've established relationships that have never existed before, and we are actively working to build upon those to see what we can do for workers globally.

What do the popular "food movements" of today have to do with farm workers' rights, and how can individual consumers get more involved in supporting change around the world?

Just look at the whole conversation about "sustainability," the buy-local fad, and that was preceded by the organic fad, and the whole mythology that was erected around those concepts that included somehow that workers were going to be treated better. When the reality is there are local farmers I would never ever in a million years buy something from, but I would gladly pay a premium to have it flown in 2,000 miles because I know workers there are treated well. And while workers aren't exposed to as many toxins in organics, there are still toxins in the organic world that are allowed, and organics does nothing on the labor front. So I think we need to make sure that labor is part of the equation.

I've found that people are frequently reluctant to dirty their hands because you're dealing with three very politically charged issues: the sustainability of small farmers, immigration policy, and labor. If you really want to stand with the people who are out there right now in the field, rather than projecting a better future theoretically, find out who's picking your food and how you can stand with them. Boycott Arizona and let your voice be heard that those types of laws are unacceptable. Support immigration reform, so we can provide legal status to the hundreds of thousands of people that put food on our table. And then really be an advocate to help support the people that are here, now, in their struggle to make a better life for themselves.

It is incumbent on us as people who care about food and care about the viability of small farmers to understand that these realities are the same for hundreds if not millions of people worldwide.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing farm workers?

Two of the biggest issues are a lack of legal status and lack of economic viability. And so you have hundreds of thousands of people that we depend on, that have no vehicle currently to obtain legal status. And they're literally dying to be able to be here legally, but we've offered them no way to do it.

We find labor is still one of the few costs that growers consider to be a flexible cost, rather than a fixed cost. There's not a lot of space in terms of negotiating what you're going to pay for diesel fuel, or what the newest and greatest pesticides are going to cost, but there's a constant search for the cheapest labor. And as a result we continue to see, from our perspective, widespread violations of workers' rights in the fields. So things like 15 workers literally dropping dead in the fields in California, just under the administration of our current governor, due to farmers' failure to provide a shaded rest area and adequate drinking water. On top of that, and depending on whose statistics you're looking at, you add that agriculture has a 4-7 times higher injury and fatality rate than non-agricultural industries, and you get a sense of just how bad it is out there.

We're not unsympathetic to the economic pressures that U.S. producers are facing. But unfortunately the way that the response has been is for farm workers literally to subsidize the cost of our cheap food with their lives, with their family's well-being, and make this industry a profoundly unsustainable one. Documented or undocumented, the average wage in agriculture is somewhere between $15,000-18,000 a year. That's just not economically sustainable. So we've got to figure out a way that the folks that pick our food can have a true livelihood.

The other issue, which I guess we shouldn't beat around the bush, is race. It's not a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of people that work in the fields are people of color. I would point out that if we had a majority of Anglos out there, there would be an absolute outrage if 15 people dropped dead in the fields in California due to heat stress. But there's barely a sound made. So I think we've got some serious obstacles in terms of making sure that literally everybody is at the table in this conversation. We need to raise those sensibilities and the awareness that workers have an important voice-that is the foundation on which any kind of true sustainability in our food production has to be based.

What kinds of changes would you like to see in agricultural, labor, or immigration policies?

First of all, we need to break down the national barriers, and recognize that it is a global system, regardless of what we think about it. That is just a reality-people are in boats right now, crossing to the Canary Islands; they're in boats right now, crossing to the Dominican Republic and Haiti to Puerto Rico; and crossing the desert as we speak. And so the first thing we need to figure out is how to support those people who, due to primarily economic desperation, are searching for better lives for their families, and minimize the deaths, the debt peonage, the trafficking that's occurring.

We have got to start talking to each other across boundaries. Respect the national differences and the work, and how we do it, but understand that for us and Mexico, we're tied at the hip. And so it's incumbent upon us to care about a small Mexican producer who's scrounging up $5,000 to pay a recruiter so he can get a H2A guest worker visa, and then he shows up here and is subjected to slave-like conditions. That reality is bi-national, and our work needs to reflect that. So I think that's the first challenge.

The second challenge is to recognize that we have global opportunities as a result of this global system. We could work collaboratively to hold multinational companies accountable and raise the standards for workers and producers in all those countries. Same goes for supermarket chains: there are very few supermarket chains that are only active now in one country. Increasingly, they're active in a multitude of countries. That's an opportunity for us to approach those chains and say, "Hey, it's not okay for you to be sourcing products from workers who are mistreated or held in debt peonage or worse." And to collaborate across borders to hold those supermarket chains accountable.

And then I think the third component is we've got to figure out a way to support these producers so their livelihoods can be sustainable. And that the workers they employ, regardless of the country, also have a sustainable future-because at the end of the day, we need people to work the fields. And our perspective is it's a very dignified job and one of the most important jobs out there because absent those folks, we don't eat. But we've got to get to a point where, at a minimum, those working in the fields need to earn a fair wage, get fair benefits, and have improved working conditions. That's a responsibility that we all bear throughout the supply chain from consumers to retailers to farmers, all the way through. If we were to boil it down to economics and immigration, and be able to make changes there, that would revolutionize the industry.


This interview originally appeared on Worldwatch, and was done by Ronit Ridberg, a research intern with the Worldwatch Institute.

Photo of Erik Nicholson courtesy United Farm Workers of America.

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