Erika’s note: This post is a continuation of the Case for Sustainability series, where I discuss the many ways in which a healthy economy and a healthy environment are inextricably linked, originally began here.

In her incredible book, The American Way of Eating (affiliate link), Tracie McMillan breaks down how, during her stint as a farmworker in California, her employers manage to skim money off of her and her fellow farmworkers’ pay:

None of us earn minimum wage, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at our checks, where some curious accounting is at work. I start off getting simple company checks without payroll information, but Diego’s family receives the latter. Each check lists the buckets picked and hours worked, but the numbers never match the information on their [rate cards]. Each worker is paid for the number of buckets they got credit for; if Rosalinda picked ten buckets in one day, her check says she earned $16 that day, and she’ll be paid that amount minus social security and taxes. The problem is that, somewhere between the farm and our paychecks, the company is changing the number of hours for which it is paying us. Even though Rosalinda’s [rate card] will show that she came in at 5:30 a.m. and left at 2:30 p.m., a nine-hour day, her check will say she was there for two hours—exactly the number of hours she would have had to work at minimum wage ($8) to earn what she made via piece rate ($16). Later, I ask advocates if this is unusual, and everyone shrugs: Not every contractor does it, but they see it regularly.

McMillan, Tracie (2012-02-21). The American Way of Eating (p. 75). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

And, before you can claim that this is what’s necessary in order for farming to be profitable, McMillan explains, in depth, where the money goes when you pay for your produce at the supermarket:

As a farmworker, I do not have the same rights that I have when I work in an office. Under federal labor laws, I have no right to days off; I have no right to overtime pay; I have no right to collective bargaining. I am lucky to be in California, though. The same way that each state can raise the local minimum wage above the federal standard, states can extend greater labor protections to farmworkers—and California has some of the country’s strongest laws to protect them. Here, I have the right to a union; I must be given time for lunch each day and a day off every week; I am entitled to workers’ compensation if I am injured on the job. All of this is by virtue of the fact that I am in California instead of, say, Texas.

Back when California decided to extend these protections to farmworkers, one of the biggest concerns was whether they would increase the price of food. Higher wages do change the price of food, but rarely as much as people fear they will. That’s because, even for produce, most of the price tag at the store pays for the system that moves it from place to place—not the wages in the field. From a farm field, produce might go to a plant where food is stored or processed, or even directly to a store; the grapes I picked were packed directly into the cartons they were sold in, for example, so they’d either be kept cool in storage or shipped out immediately.

Usually, boxes of grapes that are packed in the field go directly to a cooling facility while the company figures out where to send them. They might go to produce brokers who buy from the farmer and sell to wholesalers, who in turn sell to other wholesalers or directly to supermarkets. Or, if the grower has a direct contract with a supermarket, they’ll deliver it to one of the chain’s distribution centers, where the produce is transferred to stores. All of that—the brokers’ haggling over prices, the calmer negotiations between wholesalers, the advance contracts with supermarkets—adds cost at every step. By the time an apple ends up in the supermarket, the entire cost of growing it accounts for just about 16 percent of the price, while the other 84 percent goes to the complex infrastructure that got it there, what industry experts call marketing.

So if the farmer is only getting 16 percent of what we pay for food, what share is being paid to me, the worker in the field? Different crops have different needs; delicate fruit like peaches and raspberries, for instance, take more hand labor than something like onions or potatoes. (And most fruits and vegetables, when grown organically, take even more hand labor, since human hands take the place of weed killers.) Generally, though, farm wages for much of our food are a very small fraction of what we pay at the store. Today, if you pay a dollar for a pound of apples or a head of lettuce in the supermarket, only about six cents covers the farmwork used to get it there; increasing farm wages by 40 percent would increase the average American family’s produce bill by about sixteen dollars a year. The wages my co-workers and I are earning could easily be higher without imposing ridiculous prices on shoppers. So why aren’t they?

McMillan, Tracie (2012-02-21). The American Way of Eating (pp. 27-29). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Oh, but it’s much better for organic farm hands, right? McMillan asks that question to one of her peers in the fields: “No chemicals, but it’s the same.” Same treatment, same pay.

In order to understand what the idea of “sustainability” truly means, you have to take the necessary steps to discover exactly how unsustainable our current system is—both for the environment, and the economy.

If these numbers for the produce industry are even remotely similar for the seafood industry as I mentioned in the last post, when you take a look at what we’re paying for seafood at the grocery store, where does all of that money go?

What’s more, if the entirety of the system is based on actively abusing and mistreating disenfranchised people who merely want to earn for their families…

…wait – why aren’t these people speaking up? I’m so glad you asked:

Mostly, wages are so low because growers don’t have any reason to raise them. For one thing, any grower who hires a farm labor contractor […] doesn’t have any legal obligation to me or any of the other workers; that’s the contractor’s business, not theirs. What’s more, labor law enforcement typically relies on complaints—people coming in and making a fuss over not having been paid. There are not, contrary to my initial belief, inspectors patrolling the fields to verify that the proper wages are being paid. So far as I can tell, most of the workers I’m with are undocumented, giving them a compelling reason to keep quiet. Workers with the legal status to work here might be more prone to make a fuss, but if they did, growers might do what they’ve always done when the threat of higher wages looms: use machines instead.

McMillan, Tracie (2012-02-21). The American Way of Eating (p. 29). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

If the entirety of the system, as it stands, relies solely on paying disenfranchised populations – such as undocumented immigrants or, say, people kidnapped from another country – as little as possible, is this sustainable? In a country where we have American citizens fighting to close our borders to people most willing to do this work, where growers and sellers constantly threaten to raise prices on consumers every time the topic of paying these people a livable wage arises, are we not slowly approaching a point where this is untenable?

If there’s one thing we’ve learned throughout high school history and economics courses, is that there’s nothing as profitable as getting as close to fully unpaid labor as possible. The American South, for centuries, was propped up economically through generations of unpaid labor—also widely known as slavery. Citizens committed gratuitous acts of treason—Civil War, anyone?—merely to protect the economic boon which built their fortunes: the right to kidnap people from their country, force them into servitude, and force the generations of children they would birth to do the same. Eleven states attempted to secede from the Union in an attempt to avoid having to give up their human slaves; hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers fought to keep them. All because they wanted to retain the right to profit from unpaid labor.

If it were not for those centuries of unpaid labor and damn near unpaid labor—of course, only benefiting certain people—America would look much like the third world countries many [scumbags] snark on regularly.

What is my point? In order to create a more diverse food landscape, we’ve resorted to many of the same tactics we’ve seen used consistently for centuries across the globe — tactics that abuse people least able to speak up or fight for themselves, tactics that leave people fighting in poverty, tactics that display monumental levels of disregard and disrespect for the people who are the foundation of our system — and they not only show how eager many are to abuse the disenfranchised (better known as “the poor”) but how rampant the mistreatment can get without regulatory intervention. What’s more, but these tactics also require squeezing as much work out of people for as little as possible, and it spreads like wildfire: the race to pay people as little as humanly (or legally) possible ultimately impacts those who demand higher wages, and results in pitting people against one another.

We just elected a man who promised to make America great again. Setting aside the way that translates to me (and anyone with a surface-level understanding of what contributed to America’s perceived once-greatness), the underlying assumption is that all these businesses are leaving America to go to Mexico and/or Mexicans because the labor is cheap.

As you’ll see in the next installment, those jobs left America for many, many, many more reasons than that. Namely, the environment.

Photo credit: Flickr / USDA