Food Chains: The Struggle of Farm Workers in the US
By Ratha Lehall
On Wednesday 27 May, the Frontline Club hosted a preview screening of Food Chains, a documentary which gives a revealing insight into the working conditions of farm labourers in the US. The film also follows a campaign against a powerful supermarket chain led by a workers’ movement in Immokalee, Florida. The screening was followed by a Q&A with the film’s director Sanjay Rawal, and producer Smriti Keshari.
Rawal began by telling the audience that his father was a tomato farmer in California, and that as they began their research into the treatment of farmworkers they began to hear more and more about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). The CIW, a workers’ movement in Florida, eventually had a significant impact on the direction of the project.
“When we met the Coalition and saw that they had been able to make some sort of structural change, our whole outlook changed, and we realised… We had an opportunity with the CIW to do something that had a positive message, and make a film that focused on impact.”
Food Chains largely focuses on the CIW movement, which has been successful in pressuring numerous large companies into ensuring fair wages and treatment for their tomato farmers. The movement has consequently seen its profile grow significantly in recent years.
The majority of farm workers in Florida are migrant workers, mostly from Mexico. A number of audience members asked the filmmakers questions related to immigration, particularly concerning the safety of the workers on film. Rawal and Smriti responded that the majority of abuse that occurs on farms goes unreported; many of the workers are so dependent on their wages that they are forced to remain silent, in fear of losing their jobs.
Rawal commented that, while movements like the CIW are managing to make positive developments, it is still often the case all over the world that “beautiful legislation… is not enforced amongst the lowest paid workers, because they are the ones that have the most to lose.”
— Deepa Mirchandani (@d_mirch) May 27, 2015
Rawal and Smriti went on to discuss the reasons why farm workers originally choose to move to the US, and why low standards of treatment persist. Poverty, persecution and violence drives people to move to the US, and farmers and big companies are then able to keep their production prices down. Consumer desire for cheap food created a condition where the only people willing to work for those low wages are people who are desperately poor.
Rawal commented: “Every European country and the US became economic juggernauts and global powers because they were reliant on the labour of someone who didn’t look like them… The agricultural economies from all over the developed world relied on labour that was next-to free.”
Smriti explained that one of the primary goals for the film was to have an effective ‘impact strategy’ to reach consumers. The film has thus far been effective in “creating activists” – those who have watched the film tend to spread the world and begin actively supporting the movement and causes.
In response to an audience question about the absence of social media used by the characters in the film to bring attention to their plight, Rawal explained that workers are often lacking the most fundamental resources. He described many workers as “living in the 1950s” in terms of the lack of technology they have access to, and which is often “withheld from them.”
On the subject of the resources that farm labourers currently lack, Rawal commented: “The things that will really change their lives are air-conditioners in the summer, childcare… not having to line up for the bus at 5am… It’s like they’re in a different century.”
Visit the Food Chains website for more information on the film and upcoming screenings.