Home Environment Opinion: Slavery doesn’t always have chains

Opinion: Slavery doesn’t always have chains

9 min read

Food is one of the most important base enjoyments in many lives. Food brings us together, adds flavor and zest to life, and is incredibly cheap for Americans when compared to almost any other people in the world. It is cheap, but it comes at a great cost to those who produce America’s food in the form of labor exploitation.

Community gardening — the common response of Athenians to the problem of labor exploitation — on a large-scale level is a pipe dream because for people who don’t live in flowery towns like Athens, and for people who don’t live in food deserts, complacency is a real problem. Ignorance, complacency, a lack of empathy, call it what you will, but many people simply don’t respond with activism when presented with the hard facts about exploited workers.

On Wednesday, Feb. 18, the documentary “Food Chains” was co-sponsored by the Food Studies and Making and Breaking the Law themes, as well as The Common Project on Sustainability at the Athena Cinema for no cost to the public. The aim of this film is to bring awareness to political issues in the world of food production through the lens of a tomato picker and hopefully spur some of the activism that we don’t see enough of in the United States today.

The question of sustainability in “Food Chains” is focused on the human element in farm labor. Such workers are protected, albeit loosely, by movements called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Groups like the CIW work by applying social pressure to corporations, but they are not always fully backed by regulations and laws.

The CIW originates in Immokalee, Florida, a small town with lots of tomato picking. The workers who started this coalition have experienced intensive labor exploitation by Floridian farmers.  However, the aim of the documentary is not to demonize the farmers who contract the exploited workers of American fields.

Instead, they take the blame directly to the top of the food chain, so to speak — to grocery retailers and other large food corporations. According to the CIW, the head corporations of the food industry have long had a hold on the conditions of farm labor by controlling the market. The CIW points fingers here at market inefficiencies (where the principles of a free market fail, such as with the creation of monopolies).  They believe the path towards corporate control of food production and consumption began when Wal-Mart introduced bargain retail to grocery shoppers.

The life of a tomato picker is almost as hard to learn about as it is to live, and clearly something must be done. Again there is clear support from Athenians to move off the corporate system, and return to our community roots of the past.

Most people above the poverty line have felt the powerful crunch of neoliberal policies over the last thirty years, since Reagan, and so have little money or time to solve other people’s problems. This is part of why I see exploitation as a systemic problem and not easily solved by appealing to individual action.

The CIW suggests that for fair trade to occur in tomato production, food chains like Publix and Kroger would need to start paying a mere one cent more per pound of tomatoes picked, which is double the going rate these companies offer now. Many corporations like McDonald’s and Chipotle have already responded to the pressure brought by the CIW for change, and have joined the Fair Food Program (FFP, a CIW project) by paying the extra cent per pound.

Tomato laborers would see their wages increase two-fold, and the average grocery shopping family would spend an estimated whopping 44 cents more per year on tomatoes.

Community farming is certainly a wonderful thing to help with all kinds of food production problems. For some, community gardening has brought a whole world of change. They have helped bring real nutrition to those in poverty who are offered none by the traditional food industry.

For real change to occur, people will need to feel massive pressure to alter the status-quo.  Living in a food desert can be enough to spur such change.  But most people do not live in food deserts. Most people do not live in Athens where farming flourishes and a large chunk of the professional workforce is enlightened with Ph.D.s and months of vacation time.

The reality presented in “Food Chains” certainly leaves a sour taste in the mouth; so sour perhaps that one will not fully enjoy their next tomato.

In the meantime, I think the focus should be legality and should be geared towards protecting the immigrants who do not have citizen’s rights at their back while they put their own physical backs into the American agricultural system.

While many Americans point to the ill-effects of crony capitalism, it is still important to remember how unregulated markets historically function both in the United States and abroad. Marx once wrote about wage slavery, and this is certainly a problem today when minimum wage truly gives meaning to the word ‘minimum,’ but in the world of food there are still sadly cases of actual chained slavery.


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