Journalist Eric Schlosser, an executive producer on the film Food Chains, discusses the exploitation of poor workers in the American food system.
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Eric Schlosser: One of the problems with our food system that hasn’t gotten anywhere near enough attention is that it’s ultimately based on the exploitation of poor workers, mainly recent immigrants in this country. That’s true when you look at the restaurant industry and fast food workers. It’s true when you look at the meatpacking industry and who’s working in their processing plants. But it’s especially true in the production of fresh fruits and vegetables. Just about every, you know, healthy fresh fruit and vegetable produced in the United States is still harvested by hand and the people who are harvesting our healthiest foods are being paid poverty wages and exploited.
In the last decade there’s been so much interest in animal rights and in the abuse of livestock in the meatpacking industry and yet there’s so little interest and there’s been so little attention paid to the violation of human rights in our food system, you know. You can become a vegetarian or a vegan if you oppose the mistreatment of animals in the meatpacking industry. But if you want to eat a healthy – you want to have a healthy diet in the United States and eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables like we’re supposed to, you’re connected directly to the exploitation of workers to incredible human rights violations that are routine in the fields and not just in Florida where much of Food Chains is set but also in California – just about anywhere where migrant workers are in the United States you find incredible abuses.
Well if you were to talk about the abuse of migrant workers 30, 40 years ago a lot of the blame would have rested with the farmers who were just trying to squeeze extra money out of their workers for their own profit. But today it really isn’t the farmers and growers who have power over their workforce. It’s the companies at the top of the food chain and that would be the big fast food companies, the big supermarket chains which are the largest purchasers of these agricultural products. And they squeeze their suppliers all the way down the line. And at the very bottom, literally at the bottom of this pyramid are the workers, the workers in the field. And they’re the ones whose wages are being cut and whose working conditions are suffering in order for the fast food companies and the big supermarket chains to make a little bit of extra profit.
What workers are increasingly doing is looking at the real power in this industry, the gigantic multinational corporations, the fast food companies and supermarket chains and insisting that they pay a little extra for their produce and that they adopt standards of conduct so that, you know, the suppliers aren’t involved in this sort of abuse. And the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farm worker group based in Florida, has had tremendous success in the last decade with this very approach. Looking at the real power in the industry and insisting that they be held accountable for the poverty wages and for the terrible working conditions in the fields. And when I say terrible working conditions I don’t just mean that it’s hard work. It’s really hard work, you know, in the hot sun. It’s backbreaking work.
But beyond that and it’s sort of incredible in the twenty-first century that there would be slavery. Literally slavery in the fields as undocumented workers are basically traded by their smugglers to labor contractors and forced to work for free. And in the twenty-first century this may seem like a radical view but we shouldn’t have slavery in the United States. And I think most people don’t realize how bad these working conditions are in agriculture and the fact that, you know, there’s still systems of indenture that are more reminiscent of the mid-nineteenth century than they are with the twenty-first century.
Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton