Us vs. Stem

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.’

Just don’t look for the labor label anytime soon. Mark writes
that ‘it will be at least three years before shoppers can expect to
see an independent label that certifies decent working conditions.’
Kristen Mueller

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Us vs. Stem

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