Ask any vegan why they chose this lifestyle, and you’re likely to hear a wide variety of answers. Many initially adopt a vegan diet for health reasons. Others go vegan to become more accountable and to stop supporting the inhumane meat and dairy industries.
At its core, veganism seeks to reduce the hold of factory farming on the food industry, and the unethical treatment of animals, from chickens to cows. But what about the human element of veganism and vegetarianism — the farmworkers who harvest and produce your food? No matter the reasoning behind your choice to go vegan, it’s crucial to remember that factory farming is still unfortunately widespread in the production of plant-based products.
Without large-scale agriculture, humans wouldn’t be equipped to feed every inhabitant on Earth. Despite the essential nature of farm work, however, the job is typically considered menial labor, and industry wages reflect that mindset. The National Farm Worker Ministry reports that farmworker family income has not seen an increase since 2009, with the average individual worker salary hovering below $18,000 annually.
Even vegan companies and farms are not immune to the poor treatment of these essential workers. As ethical considerations are at the forefront of modern veganism, vegans around the world should do their part to support the rights of farmworkers, and avoid companies that mistreat their employees. Here’s what you need to know about what’s at stake, as well as how to focus on farmworker rights, now and into the future.
Protecting the Rights and Livelihoods of Farm Workers
The harsh reality is that, in the realm of factory farming, workers are mistreated nearly as often as their animal counterparts. The problem is a global one, as evidenced by the recent protests in India. In response to a recently imposed and controversial government bill, farmers and farmworkers took to the streets of New Delhi in protest. The Indian farm bill effectively reduced protections of small-scale farmers, while also slashing crop prices, a move that puts the livelihoods of millions in peril.
Yet financial considerations are just the beginning in terms of the mistreatment of farmworkers. Agriculture work is inherently hazardous: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “farmworkers are at high risk for fatalities and injuries.” Those working long days in fields or processing facilities are also susceptible to noise-induced hearing loss, skin cancer from prolonged sun exposure, and diseases carried by mosquitoes and ticks.
Under the threat of a pandemic, farm work is even riskier. Every day, factory workers and field hands alike risk exposure to COVID-19 to earn a living. For example, in May 2020, the virus spread like wildfire throughout numerous meat-processing plants, affecting some 20,000 workers in a month. But the continued spread of COVID-19 among farmworkers isn’t confined to the meat industry, and vegan companies may be just as susceptible to an outbreak.
Product Labels and the Roots of Factory Farming
If you have chosen to live a vegan lifestyle, you’re likely interested in the origin of your food and household products, including kinds of toothpaste. Chances are, you regularly read product labels to ensure that what you’re buying is vegan and ethically sourced. Yet even the most comprehensive ingredient labels may not tell you everything you want to know.
In a world where new products are consistently introduced and recipes altered, it’s important to stay on top of ingredient production and definitions. While that may be easier said than done, you can start by educating yourself on relevant terminology, as it pertains to unethical ingredients and worker conditions. For example, the cocoa production industry is well known for its exploitation of child workers, some of whom are as young as 5 years old. By choosing a product label that includes the word “fairtrade,” you’re more likely to avoid supporting companies that utilize child labor.
But your work as a mindful consumer doesn’t end with product labels. You may also want to research the companies you do support to better hold corporations accountable. The unfortunate reality is that many vegan products are produced by major corporations that also own brands and products wherein unethical practices are rampant.
For example, the Pure company, which produces a range of dairy-free spreads, is owned by the Kerry Group. Founded in 1972, the Kerry Group is worth an estimated $20.3 billion, and its product line includes various processed meats and dairy items. This is the sort of relevant information that you can’t necessarily gather from a simple product label.
What You Can Do on an Individual Level
In researching the companies that you support, it’s important not to overlook worker conditions. If you’re concerned about ethical considerations within the meat and dairy industries, you should also educate yourself on the ethics behind the agricultural system. For starters, did you know that about 73% of U.S. farmworkers were born outside the country? Immigrant labor is thus crucial to the agriculture industry, but it comes at a price.
Unfortunately, much of the American agriculture system takes advantage of these immigrant workers. Although they often work long hours in harsh conditions to put food on everyone’s tables, including vegans, the daily threat of deportation is very real. Agricultural workers can ensure legal protections by obtaining an H-2A visa, but just as with social programs, many immigrants are unaware of how to do so or lack the funds to pay for necessary documents.
As a mindful consumer who cares deeply about ethical farming, you can do more than read product labels and learn about the ins-and-outs of the global food system. Indeed, vegans must also be aware of the dangers of farm work, including low wages and the possibility of deportation. Of course, awareness is one thing: Changing the agricultural industry for the better additionally requires advocacy on behalf of both animals and mistreated farm workers alike.