How does food end up not only plentiful, but cheap? There is a simple, central reason that is often swept under the table: labor exploitation. Of course, in many countries, labor exploitation is nothing new. Going back to any early human civilization, it is apparent that labor exploitation has formed the base of the pyramid in society upon which elites—Pharaohs, priests, traders, and warriors—exist and persist. In more recent times, the colonial triangular trade network—with slavery at its core—established badly treated labor as an essential economic benefit for rapidly growing and “developing” countries—particular in agriculture (but also for mining, factory work, and so on).
Usually, people of more marginalized social groups provide (non-family) farm labor, because these are the groups who can be enslaved, badly paid, or otherwise mistreated. In much of the world immigrants occupy this position of an available and easily marginalized class. Much of the global food system is thus dependent on the continual exploitation of rights-less immigrants; without their labor, food that is already growing sometimes literally goes without being harvested.
In the first decades of the 21st century farmworkers in the tomato plantations of Florida, USA have been found captive, locked in trailers. Such modern day slaves are often forced into labor to pay off immigration-related debts, and are afraid to seek help due to their immigration status precariousness. In Spain’s greenhouses of the south coast, North Africans are the preferred source of labor, with similar outcomes…in Canada, state-run seasonal worker programs help farmers keep their laborers under control…from California’s fields of chemical-drenched strawberries to Italy’s olive groves, immigrants are the backbone to many sectors and geographic regions of agriculture.
Wage differentials between Minority and Majority world countries, local conflicts, and global economic policies drive much of immigration: when a person cannot feed their family in their homeland with land or labor (for a plethora of economic-political reasons), they are driven to find any potential new economic opportunity. This is the story of migration in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This leads to farm labor situations where economic coercion (in contrast to “extra-economic” coercion ) makes possible conditions close to slavery. We often treat cases of overt slavery like those above as anomalies in society requiring explanation, but they are actually unsurprising outcomes of existing economic inequalities, ever-present profit motives, and states that regulate and reinforce these unequal labor relations.
We might assume that the raw economic calculus of growing food to sell makes labor exploitation necessary. The work needed to make a farm productive must be done, and many Minority world consumers have come to expect food at cheap prices. But farm work doesn’t need to be drudgery: there are examples of agricultural operations that pay living wages, and treat workers with respect and dignity. T & D Willey Farms and Swanton Berry Farm in California are Minority world examples of market-driven, employment-based farms that maintain good worker relations and conditions. International social movements also claim that many avenues are possible to stem exploitation of migrants.
Many (non-export oriented) Majority world farms rely on family and community labor, operating largely outside capitalist labor markets. These have been considered—by both the farmers themselves and on occasion by outside researchers/observers—to be different than capitalist farms in terms of exploitation. This doesn’t mean these farms are exploitation-free; but that exploitation is more likely to be intra-familial (patriarchs exploiting women and children), intra-community, or “self-exploitation“. Labor exploitation can and does occur on smaller-scale, organic and Minority world family farms, but it is the industrial system that really excels at undervaluing and disrespecting workers.
In part this is because the larger-scale an operation, the more labor becomes rote and repeated and factory-like. There is no way around it: harvesting one crop from acres and acres is a less pleasant task for one worker (or set of workers) than picking, weeding, harvesting, planting and managing in a farm system diversified in time and space and products. Tom Willey of T & D Willey Farm makes this clear: he plans his farm’s production in order to have greater diversity of work and consistency of work throughout the year (instead of his workers having to perpetually migrate following labor opportunities from one mono-cropped farm to the next).
Because of the reality of economic coercion, where even an exploitative work environment in one situation is better (to some) than no work in another situation (such as in one’s homeland), some farmworkers fight for improved conditions in waged labor on industrial farms, rather than to have their own land and become their own farmers. While its very likely that most farmworkers would rather have control over their labor if they could make a living doing so (and there are programs that help farmworkers in the USA become farm operators which attest to this desire, but I haven’t found much research or statistical information on this issue), dealing with the farm labor situation as it is requires addressing the existing injustices within waged labor.
While it’s great to imagine a future food system of smaller, diversified farms with non-exploited labor, this would rely on a massive shift in current structures of land ownership and management. The term “land reform” points to some of what would be required to move in this direction, and this will be discussed in a future post. Until then, we must bear in mind that most of the food system, regardless of farm size or character, involves labor exploitation.
P.s. As a side note—and potentially problematic for those promoting labor intensive small-scale farms: some scholars, particularly Philip Woodhouse, have argued that small-scale farming is kept from being a viable alternative to industrial agriculture because the smaller and less mechanized the farm, the more intensively farmers must work; the more hand-based labor is required, the higher the wage costs of production, and therefore the higher product costs will be (and often, especially in the absence of an organic certification or other market premium, this still results in lower farmer incomes). This means that efficiently mechanized agriculture helps feed low-income people, and labor intensive management of farms—to the extent these farms are integrated into market economies—is associated with higher product prices.
 Marx noted that before capitalism, exploitation was mainly “extra-economic”—meaning it stemmed from the threat of brute physical force to get people to do something. After capitalism’s rise, he argued, the masses are exploited by “the dull compulsion of economic forces”—that is, “economic coercion” from the requirement to submit to labor exploitation in order to eat, feed a family, and survive.