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Bread & butter issues

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The millions of workers who produce the world’s food are brutally exploited, but they can also resist the system, writes Raj Patel
Issue 2077
 (Pic:» Tim Sanders )
(Pic: » Tim Sanders)

It’s often in our pockets that we connect most directly to the politics of food. But the struggle for food extends across a broader canvas, and it’s one that affects workers intimately. The production of food, for instance, is a battlefield of exploitation and resistance.

Too often, those most exploited in the making of our everyday food are those with the least resources – migrant labourers. The Morecombe Bay tragedy, in which 23 Chinese migrant cockle-pickers drowned in Lancashire, highlighted a practice that is widespread.

In Cornwall, Greek labourers claim they have been treated like slaves on a flower farm. Stories of workers left with £6 after deductions made by gangmasters from their pay packets for food and accommodation are not uncommon.

And Britain is among the better places for migrant labourers to come. In some Brazilian sugar cane plantations, migrant labourers really are slaves – and there are an estimated 50,000 of them.

Farm workers and their families are the people most likely to die of hunger in times of famine.

When you hear about famine, it’s easy to forget that those involved are not in the cities but in rural areas, and not those with land but those without it.

And they die not because there is insufficient food – in every famine since the Second World War there has always been enough food to feed the starving. The reason that farm workers starve is because they are too poor to be able to afford the food that’s on sale.

Yet there has long been resistance to this exploitation. It is resistance that doesn’t rely on government charity.

Rather, it puts organising workers at the front and centre. Migrant labourers in California, for example, were among the most exploited people in the US, brought in on the cheap from across the world, from India, China, Japan and most recently South America. Their conditions were unforgiving.

“No one complains at the necessity of feeding a horse while he is not working,” wrote the novelist John Steinbeck, commenting on migrant labourers’ conditions during the 1930s.

“But we complain about feeding the men and women who work our lands. Is it possible that this state is so stupid, so vicious, and so greedy that it cannot clothe and feed the men and women who help to make it the richest area in the world?

“Must the hunger become anger and the anger fury before anything will be done?”

The anger did become fury, and through it the United Farm Workers union was born.

It fought the farm owners and racist union leaders to win the right to work with dignity throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

They won important concessions, as did fellow workers in the meat packing industry, which also was a crucible of progressive interracial politics.

Both these struggles have since faltered, finding themselves waiting for governments to act on the promises extracted through hard campaigning.

All is not lost though. The Brazilian Landless Rural Workers Movement – the MST – provides an example of how militancy can work.

Its strategy is to organise workers, and then occupy unused or under-used farm land, fighting off land owners, their hired guns and the police.

The result has been the resettlement of over one million people in 30 years, leading them to better lives than if they’d waited for the government to provide.

It would be a mistake to think though, that the only organising happening around food comes from those who grow it.

Italian socialists were among the first to raise the questions, “Why is it only rich people who get to enjoy food? Why is it not every worker’s right to have pleasure through eating?”

They realised that in order to enjoy food workers needed two things – time and money.

So they fought for an increase in agricultural wages and also for a two hour lunch break, to reclaim time back from their employers.

It has always been through struggle and organising like this that workers have prevailed in the food system.

That could mean having better working conditions, or making sure that no one goes hungry, or moving to a world where everyone can really savour their food.

With 850 million people going hungry every year, that struggle has a long way to go.

But it has a glorious past, and one that can give us the wisdom and courage to push forward.

Raj Patel is the author of Stuffed and Starved: markets, power and the hidden battle for the world food system, available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to »

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