Why Women Who Pick and Process Your Food Face Daily Threats of Rape, Harassment and Wage Theft
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Immigrants who work in meat processing plants are not exposed to chemicals, but they spend their days working among sharp knives and dangerous machinery. But those who lose body parts in accidents related to knives or machines at least have a better chance of receiving health care for their injuries. Far more common are injuries such as tendinitis, caused by making the same fast, repetitive motions for hours each day. While painful and debilitating, these injuries are often dismissed by the medical staff in the plants, and workers are sent back to work with little care or relief for their pain. The best safeguard against injuries from repetitive movements are sharp knives, but one worker whose job was to slice fat from chicken breasts reported that the company would deduct $10 from her paycheck if she requested a sharper knife.
The women, by and large, found it difficult to complain to their employers about the many indignities, health hazards, and even crimes they faced on the job. Bauer reflected that, while some might think the women weren't complaining because they grew up in a different culture and were ignorant of U.S. laws, she doesn't believe that is the case. "Many women knew what was done to them was wrong and probably illegal. But other factors made them unwilling to come forward."
Those who did complain were told they could quit if they did not like their working conditions, as there was no shortage of other immigrants lining up to replace them, and sometimes employers even threatened to turn undocumented immigrants in to the authorities if they spoke up. Bauer says, "We don't give enough credit to workers for making what is really a rational decision." That is, they choose to put up with humiliating, unsafe, horrific working conditions because it's better than the alternatives of not working at all, or returning to their home countries.
Some of the women said if they knew what it would be like here in the U.S., they would not have come. Others say their lives are terrible in the United States, but they had no choice. After interviewing such a broad range of women for the report, Bauer says she was struck by the "weight of cumulative trauma" the women bore. "Many women suffered in so many ways with no significant report," she says. "You can absorb one really terrible incident, but when it's coming to you in so many ways it's courageous and brave to wake up every day and go to work."
That's the courage that literally puts the food on Americans' tables.
For Americans who no longer want to support a system of such exploitation, there are several available actions to take, although none are perfect. First, opt out of the system by procuring food that was not picked by poorly-paid immigrants. Most simply, grow your own food or buy it locally from farmers' markets. Of course, completely opting out of the mainstream exploitative food system is nearly impossible, unless you can get literally everything you need (including milk and meat) locally. But do the best you can. Another option is to buy organic, so at least whoever grew and harvested your food was not exposed to pesticides, although that only solves one problem out of many. And follow along with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' campaigns, calling on retailers to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes picked by immigrant labor and boycotting retailers that refuse. You could also support efforts of the Center for Farmworker Families, which works in both Mexico and the U.S. Long term, however, a political solution is needed, with not only immigration reform, but also a re-negotiation or abandonment of NAFTA, which single-handedly drove many Mexicans north once they were no longer able to feed their families on their family farms.