Sunday, September 1, 2013

How Much Does Justice Cost?

Let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like a mighty stream.
Martin Luther King quoted Amos 5:24 in his "I Have a Dream" speech, commemorated this past week on the 50th anniversary of the nistoric 1963 March on Washington, but he also quoted that passage in a speech during the Montgomery bus boycott, in his letter from Birmingham jail, in "How Should a Christian View Communism?", "On Vietnam," "Where Do We Go from Here?", "Our God is Marching On."

He quoted it again the night before he was assassinated, speaking in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking sanitation workers. Justice, to him, was rooted in scripture, and tied tightly to the just treatment of the poor, and of low-income workers here and around the world.

The book of Amos would be a good text to read on this Labor Day Sunday. Just nine chapters long, it provides a striking view of a period of expansive trade, growing division between rich and poor, oblivious consumption, disregard for the needs of workers.

Amos himself was a sheep herder and fig farmer. Like farmers today, he saw the way wealth and power concentrated into the hands of the few, while those who worked to create the wealth fell deeper into poverty. He also saw what happened when production of food gave way to production of profit.
Hear this, you who trample the needy
And do away with the poor of the land,
When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain,
And the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”
Skimping the measure,
Boosting the price
And cheating with dishonest scales,
Buying the poor with silver
And the needy for a pair of sandles,
Selling even the sweepings with the wheat.
 (Amos 8:4-6)
Spend even a little time looking at labor practices in today’s agricultural systems and Amos’ words jump to life.

How many workers are forced to labor far past a reasonable work week, for little pay, or worse, as bonded laborers?

I’ve posted before about slave labor and chocolate, but the practice of child slave labor reaches far past that one food product.

Coffee is the second most traded commodity world-wide after oil, and much of the world’s coffee is harvested by forced labor, often by children, some as young as five years old. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, child labor is part of coffee production in Colombia, Côte D’Ivoire, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Guinea, Honduras, El Salvador, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Uganda.

When global coffee buyers push prices lower, small growers find themselves looking for ways to cut their costs, and forced child labor is a common strategy.
“In the past decade, the proportion of value added to coffee in the industrialized world has increased significantly. The share of producing countries’ earnings in the retail market decreased drastically by the early 2000s, to between 6% and 8% of the value of a coffee packet sold in a supermarket” (UNCTAD 2004). One of the root causes of forced and child labor in coffee is the low prices and lack of price stability for farmers.”
Amos, in his indictment of wealthy consumers, is rarely polite:
“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria,
You women who oppress the poor and crush the needy
And say to your husbands, “bring us some drinks!”  (4:1)
Surely the women of Bashan knew little of the conditions of the poor supplying those drinks, just as we know little of the conditions of the poor growing and harvesting our coffee.

Apparently, for Amos at least, that was no excuse.

But what would it cost us to ensure a living wage?
“Farmers who participate in the Fair Trade program receive, as of 2012, a $0.20/lb premium on Fair Trade Coffee (Fair Trade USA). In return for this premium price, Fair Trade cooperatives adhere to a number of labor standards, including the prohibition of forced and child labor.” (Verité Fair Labor Worldwide)
Simple math: insistence on Fair Trade coffee should cost just 20 cents more per pound. Although, looking at the grocery shelf, the premium may be a little higher. And maybe a few minutes extra to look for the Fair Trade certification.  

But coffee and chocolate, grown in developing countries, are not the only food products where unfair labor practices abound.

Look closer to home: the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, begun in 1993 in Florida, has been working to raise awareness of bonded labor and unjust practices throughout the southeastern states, primarily in the harvesting of tomatoes. Their antislavery campaign has helped gain freedom for over 1200 workers held against their will in Florida. Kidnapped or tricked into captivity, many of them were locked at night in box trucks or sheds, sometimes chained, beaten if they tried to escape.

For thirty years, the wages of tomato workers held constant: 50 cents a bucket.  Buckets hold about 32 pounds, and until recently, workers were forced to pile the buckets high. The best the fastest pickers could earn was $75 a day.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been promoting a Fair Food Campaign, attempting to raise tomato workers wages by one penny a pound, and instituting rules about fair measures, fair hours, and other worker protections.

Some corporations have signed on in support of the campaign.  Others refuse to pay the penny a pound difference. This summer, the CIW is asking help in convincing Giant, Stop and Shop, Kroger and Wendy’s that a penny a pound isn’t too much to ask in support of justice for workers.

A penny a pound.

Surely we can afford it?

But this issue of justice goes deeper still.

Not long ago I heard Wenonah Hauter, director of Food and Water Watch, speak about her new book FoodopolyConcentration in the food industry puts pressure on small and midsize farmers, forcing many to sign contracts that increase their debt and decrease their profits, dictate conditions, narrow choice.

Just four companies (Kelloggs, ConAgras, Kraft and General Mills) control 80 percent of the cereal industry. Four companies control 83 percent of the beef packing industry, 85 percent of soybean processing, 66 percent of pork.  As of 2008, three companies (Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and Bunge) controlled 90 percent of the global grain trade.

More than 60 percent of all poultry in the U.S. is now raised by growers locked into one-sided contracts that force the famers to take on risk and capital investment while leaving the distributors (Pilgrim’s Pride, Tyson, Purdue, Sanderson Farms) free to dictate terms, walk away from contracts at will, and dodge liability for pollution or disease. The farmer’s share of the price of chicken has been stuck at under 5 cents a pound for the last twenty-five years, while the distributors’ profits soar into the millions.

If growers in the U.S. are pressured and squeezed, forced into contracts that leave little room to move, how much greater is the pressure on small farmers in other parts of the world? How much greater the incentive to underpay workers, fall back on slave labor, ignore safety precautions, “sell the sweepings with the wheat”?

We live in a complicated world.

And we love easy.

But sometimes the cost of easy is too great.

Amos warned of the dangers of commodification, treating all of life as something for sale: land, time, justice, even people:
They sell the righeous for silver,
And the needy for a pair of sandals.
They tramploe on the heads of the poor
As upon the dust of the ground
And deny justice to the oppressed
He warned against worship of the idol of profit and the resultant disregard for compassion, mercy, wisdom, justice:
you have turned justice into poisonand the fruit of righteousness into bitterness (6:12)
Mistreatment of farmers and farm workers goes hand in hand with mistreatment of animals, of soil, of water. If the profit motive is the greatest good, then human health, environmental health, health of rural communities all become expendable.

What would it take to change this? What would it take to bring justice for farmers and farm workers, and along with that, better treatment of land, animals, human health?



Pennies on the dollar.

Expenditure of time.

Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, asked:
“What single thing could change the U.S. food system, practically overnight? Widespread public awareness – of how this system operates and whom it benefits, how it harms consumers, how it mistreats animals and pollutes the land, how it corrupts public officials and intimidates the press, and most of all, how its power ultimately depends on a series of cheerful and ingenious lies.”
It’s time we understood, and spoke against, those “cheerful and ingenious lies.”

Here are some places to start:

Learn more about food and justice: Harvesting Justice (a downloadable book about global food issues)

This is the third in a series on food and farming, Jesus' nature parables, and the intermingling of justice, sabbath, shalom, and the sweet, shared hope of God's green equity: