Food for Thought About the Food on Our Thanksgiving Table

Last December, Barbara Ehrenreich took us to task for exercising gratitude. Well, not all of us, but the many who’ve heeded the research—often distilled into self-help guidance—that promotes gratitude because it’s so good for us.

Even those of us who still actually bother to thank people who’ve done nice things for us—rather than, for example, just jotting them down a journal—don’t escape scot-free.

Because, says Ehrenreich, we’re unlikely to feel thankful for the labors of low-income people—and because our gratitude, in and of itself, won’t make a damn bit of difference to them.

The op-ed struck me at the time as more appropriate for Thanksgiving than for the new year we were about to ring in. And perhaps Ehrenreich wrote it for publication then. In any event, I’m recurring to it now, thinking especially about the people whose labors feed us.

Not them only, however. Our Thanksgiving celebrations depend on other low-income people too—the clerks at the grocery stores, the workers in the other stores where we bought the napkins, candles, etc.

They won’t all have a Thanksgiving Day because many of the grocery stores will stay open so we can pick up what we forgot—and because a goodly number of us will start our holiday shopping while we’re still digesting turkey. That, at least, is what stores offering the extra-early Black Friday sales intend.

But back to our food.

Recent events have raised our consciousness of very disgruntled people in rural communities. They’re not, for the most part, actually poor. Or so one gathers from the polls. But many of the people in rural areas are—among them, those who plant, weed and harvest the fruits and vegetables that we’ll have on our tables.

They’re generally supposed to get paid at least the federal minimum wage. So they’d earn slightly over $15,000 a year if they worked full time, year round. But many don’t because crops have growing seasons.

That’s only one reason that farm workers are reportedly among the lowest-paid in the country—paid so little that 25% of their families have incomes below the federal poverty line, according to the Department of Labor’s latest (not altogether current) survey.

For one thing, not all farm owners have to pay the minimum wage. The Fair Labor Standards Act exempts those who use fewer than 500 “man days” during any calendar quarter, i.e., the equivalent of 500 people working each day.

Sounds like a lot, it but translates into roughly seven workers per quarter, according to Farmworker Justice. It means, in fact, that about a third of our country’s farm workers can legally get paid less than the minimum wage.

Others may wind up short because they’re paid by how much they harvest—so much per bucket, for example. The burden thus falls on them to prove how much they’ve earned, whether more than the minimum wage or less. If less, than they’re owed the minimum.

That’s the most they’re entitled to under federal law. The FLSA doesn’t require farm owners to pay time and a half to workers who put in more than 40 hours a week. California and a few other states mandate overtime pay.

But surely not all farm workers who ought to get it do. Nearly a third of those the Labor Department surveyed spoke no English whatever. Nearly as many spoke only a little. And only 20% said they could read English well.

They’re ripe for wage theft and other abuses, e.g., lack of protection from poisonous pesticides. This is all the more true because nearly half—or perhaps even more—have no legal authority to work here.

Even farm workers born in this country or equipped with green cards run more than the usual risks if they try organize and collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions because they’ve no protections under the National Labor Relations Act.

Well, most of us look forward to Thanksgiving dinner because of the turkey, not the green beans or the mashed sweet potatoes (especially if they’ve got marshmallows mixed in). The pies are a different matter, of course.

What I’ve already said about farm workers applies to those who feed birds, clean up after them and toss them into crates, then onto the trucks that take them to the slaughterhouses—commonly and euphemistically called processing plants.

What life’s like for workers in plants that process turkeys isn’t easily learned—at least, for someone sitting at a computer. But we can learn quite a bit about workers in chicken processing plants. And presumably conditions are comparable.

Pay is low, though generally more than the minimum wage. Hours can be extremely long. But we can guess from past investigations that workers don’t always get paid for overtime. A recent survey of workers in Arkansas poultry plants found that 62% had experienced wage theft of one sort or another.

Further—and more singular problems—have to do with working conditions. Processing involves a lot of tasks, as Oxfam America explains in its lengthy report on workers in the processing plants owned by our major suppliers.

Basically, the birds get hung upside down on a line that speeds along very fast. Workers must keep up. They can’t always go to the bathroom when they need to. They suffer unusually high rates of repetitive motion disorders and other injuries. They’re exposed to harmful chemicals.

They can’t take time off when they’re sick or in too much pain to work without losing pay—and perhaps their jobs. Well-founded fears of job loss causes them to put up with whatever they’re subject to—especially immigrants, documented and otherwise.

I suppose it seems I’m trying to infuse guilt into what’s supposed to be a special day of gratitude. That’s not my intent, though I confess to feeling a little queasy about the low price I paid for my turkey.

Readers who felt stung by Ehrenreich’s column argued that pausing to focus on what we’re grateful for can make us more generous—even “lead to greater efforts to bring about social change.”

I see some truth in this—if we move beyond the things we’re grateful for to a heartfelt understanding of the privileges they imply and beyond that too. Because knowing we’re more privileged than some other folks does nothing

The food on our table (wine too maybe), the people gathered round, the warmth of the house, the security—these are all privileges and, often as not, derive from injustices in our social and economic systems.

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