Us vs. Stem

Low wages and hostile work environments plague many organic farms

| August 10, 2006

Buying organic isn't always as ethically sound as it's cracked up to be. Sure, special care is taken to protect the land and its bounty from exploitation, but the same can't be said for the workers who toil in the fields. 'In terms of wages and labor rights, there's really no difference between organic and conventional,' Richard Mandelbaum, a policy analyst for the Farmworker Support Committee, tells Grist's Jason Mark.

While Mark writes that 'comprehensive studies of conditions on organic farms are hard to find,' there are plenty of case-by-case complaints, and even lawsuits, attacking farms for having hostile work environments (Pavich Farms in Arizona), sexually discriminating against potential workers (Threemile Canyon in Oregon), and failing to pay living wages or offer medical and retirement plans (a majority of the 188 organic California farms surveyed by researchers at UC Davis.)

With $14 billion in sales fueling the growing organic industry, it seems natural that farm workers should be adequately compensated. But, as co-owner of Blue Heron Farm Tim Vos points out, 'If you want to pay people well, you need high prices. What would it take to offer benefits? We would have to almost double our prices.'

Not all organic farms have balked at their original image as environmentally friendly and socially responsible businesses. Swanton Berry Farm, a union-certified, California-based organic strawberry farm, pays its 30 workers $9 to $11 per hour and offers 'a medical plan, a pension plan, holiday pay, and subsidized housing?' That's on top of stock options.

These benefits come at a hefty price -- the farm costs 15 percent more than average to run, making Swanton an unlikely model to follow. But hope for more humane working standards is flourishing. Concerned organizations have banded together to form the Domestic Fair Trade Working Group. Its goal: to create a 'fair made' seal, independent of USDA certified organic labels, to stick on products that have been reaped via fair labor practices.

The seal will be awarded after farms pass a monitoring process assessing a set of labor standards. The current draft calls for 'a living wage for farmworkers, fair prices for farmers, transparent business practices, and family farm ownership.'

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