“If you want to get rid of illegal immigrants,” says Alabama sweet potato farmer Keith Smith, “quit eating.” The farmer, lamenting his inability to find adequate farm labor after Alabama passed its toughest-in-the-nation immigration law, HB 56, highlights an important reality: if you eat, you’re almost certainly benefiting from the labor of undocumented immigrants, whether you realize it or not.
That’s because, according to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, at least 50% to 60% of the food that Americans consume was touched by immigrant hands at some point along the way, whether when it was picked in the field, slaughtered at a slaughterhouse, or prepared within a restaurant kitchen. A new book entitled The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table (Scribner, 2012) follows journalist Tracie McMillan as she works for a few months each as a farmworker in California’s Central Valley, in the produce department of a Detroit-area Wal-Mart, and in the kitchen of a New York City Applebee’s. While not a book about immigrants per se, McMillan finds that immigration issues are intrinsic to any discussion of our nation’s food.
Whereas most of her co-workers at two separate Wal-Mart stores in Michigan seem to have been U.S. citizens—it’s the only place where McMillan mentions being asked about legal status in order to accept a job—almost all of her co-workers in both the agricultural fields of California and the restaurant kitchen of New York City are immigrants or their children. McMillan finds picking grapes and peaches to be incredibly difficult work in intolerable heat: she also ends up making far less than the minimum wage. Because she is paid “by piece”—that is, based on the amount that she picks, rather than by how many hours she works—and because she simply cannot work fast enough, she ends up earning just $26 for a nine-hour day of picking grapes—less than $3 per hour. Even her more skilled and experienced immigrant co-workers, though, don’t earn the minimum wage: for gleaning garlic left behind by the cutters, they get paid $1.60 per bucket. The best worker in the crew picked thirty-one buckets, for a wage of $49.60 for eight hours of work; McMillan managed just twelve buckets and earned $19.20, about $2.40 per hour. That’s not legal, but her employer gives her a paycheck that says she’s paid by the hour: her paycheck says $19.20 for two hours of work, though she actually worked eight. “It’s cheaper to violate the law than to follow the law,” a labor lawyer who represents farmworkers later explains to the author, noting that even if the employer was caught, the average fine for this sort of offense is only $342. And, in any case, very few complain, because they don’t have legal status, and they’re still earning more in the U.S. than they could for similar work in Mexico. The contractor who hires the laborers—who then sells the garlic to be sold, in McMillan’s particular case, to Wal-Mart and Whole Foods—has little to gain by paying a fair, legal wage.
Faced with these sorts of harsh realities about the treatment of agricultural workers, many presume that, for farmworkers to be treated and paid decently, we’d all have to pay significantly more for our food. But that’s not necessarily true: if you pay $1 for a head of lettuce or a pound of apples at the supermarket, only about six cents actually goes to the farmworker who picked it. “Increasing farm wages by 40 percent would increase the average American family’s produce bill by about sixteen dollars a year,” McMillan calculates. So why wouldn’t we do that? Because there’s very little incentive on the labor contractors to pay more than they have to, enforcement of labor laws is rare, and undocumented workers—fearful of deportation—are unlikely to report abuses.
McMillan’s experience in the Applebee’s kitchen in Brooklyn—which she generally finds much more enjoyable—also illustrates some of the abuses endured by immigrant workers. Although most American restaurant workers are Caucasian (58%), the vast majority of prep workers—89%–are ethnic minorities, usually immigrants, often undocumented. In the Applebee’s where McMillan worked, most of her colleagues were Caribbean or Mexican. Here, too, though she enjoys the camaraderie of the kitchen, she experiences wage theft: promised $9 per hour when she was hired, her paycheck reflects $8, an underpayment of about $40 a week that never gets rectified in the time she is there. She is also not paid for training hours, even though she clocked in as appropriate. McMillan notes a 2007 study of New York City’s restaurant industry that finds that such “partial nonpayment” is “common.”
I’m far removed from the agricultural fields where I live—except for our community garden—but many of my neighbors are undocumented Mexican immigrants who work in the restaurant industry in the Chicago suburb where I live. I’ve heard stories similar to McMillan’s experience: one neighbor was given a second false Social Security card—with a separate name—by his employer, so that he could work a double shift. On paper, though, he’s two separate employees, and thus not entitled to overtime (his payroll taxes for both names get deducted and sent to the federal and state governments, even though he’s not eligible for Social Security when he retires or for other benefits that his taxes cover for others). Another neighbor was working for about $8 per hour by check (with payroll taxes deducted, again, using a false Social Security card); but then a new boss came and decided to pay him by cash—off the books—and lowered his wages to less than $3 per hour, plus irregular tips that do not come near to matching the minimum wage. Yet another is paid a monthly “salary” no matter how many hours he works: given his many hours, he ends up earning less than the minimum wage.
An American Way of Eating is a fascinating introduction to the realities of how we eat—and who else is involved in the process: not just cogs in a labor market or a supply chain, but people, made in God’s image, even if many lack legal status. As I read, the passage that kept returning to my mind was James’ warning: “The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:4). McMillan’s book is full of overwhelming realities—as an eater, I’m implicated in this system, and I can’t stop eating—but perhaps awareness is the first step toward a more just way of eating.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
We’re always looking for new guest bloggers; please check out our Guest Blog Submission Guidelines if you’re interested.