More than a number
By Corinne Okada Takara
More than a number
Corinne Okada Takara responds to
What does ownership look like in the future?
Class Prompt: Contemporary societies are built on the backs of animals. What would happen if animals have defined self-hood and access to their own bodies? When animals cannot be owned or treated as natural resources, what happens to our longstanding economic and political systems which are reliant upon them?
This question cannot be answered until we address how our current society is built on the backs of people. The whole of the agricultural system in the US has roots in the foundations of slavery and systemic exploitation of humans, animals, and land. Humans, not just animals in this system, are often treated like a natural resource, earmarked as a number for their labor. A few generations ago, my own family members living on the Paia Maui Sugar Cane Plantation were identified literally by numbers on tags. This brass and aluminum disc tagging system, originally used for dogs and trees, was the Hawaii plantation system’s way of identifying immigrant workers. These tags were called “bango’’ (pronounced “bong go”) and were to be worn at all times by the immigrant groups in the agriculture labor camps. These tags came in circles, ovals, squares, triangles and other shapes, each representing a different ethnic group, including Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Portuguese and others. Agricultural field workers were paid for their labor as credit to that bango number, not to their name, at the company plantation store. Infractions were deducted from it, as well. This was a circular system to keep wealth concentrated in the hands of the Big Five Plantation owners and was built upon the legacy of agricultural slavery practices in sugar cane and tobacco in the United States South.
Today, immigrants and many Indigenous peoples are still crucial to US agricultural field labor. The $8 billion agricultural industry in Salinas California alone relies on 92% immigrant field workers and Indigenous people from such areas as Oaxaca, Michoacan and Jalisco. Agricultural workers support the $1.109 trillion agricultural industry in the U.S and they represent some of the most socially and economically disadvantaged people. Migratory field workers are paid by ‘piece work,’ paid only for what they pick. While deemed Essential Workers during COVID19 pandemic, migrant field workers across the United States live in crowded conditions, the majority have no healthcare, and the majority bring their own protective gear and tools to the fields. The chain of hierarchy in the labor system keeps responsibility distributed; the agency that selects and transports the workers is different from the one that houses them, different from the busing company that gets workers to the fields, and different from the various farms they are sent to. During peak harvest season, workers often won’t even know where they are regionally in the state of California or what specific farm they are working at. Further insidious, is that it is legal to have children as young as the age of 10 picking crops in the US. Significantly, there is also no federal law specifying any limitations on maximum working hours for minors under 16 who are engaged in agricultural work. And Federal law does not specify any limitations on the number of days per week that can be worked by minors under 16 who are engaged in agricultural work. By some estimates, there are more than 80,000 kids picking crops in the U.S. and it’s totally legal. For more information on federal youth labor laws visit: https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/youthlabor/agriculturalemployment For California State agricultural labor laws visit: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/state/child-labor/agriculture#California More information here: Maximum Working Hours for Minors Under 16
Why is this above data a shock to many of us? With only 10% of the US working in agriculture, there is a massive disconnect between many of our lives and our understanding of agricultural workers lives and the exploitative system ‘big ag’ is built upon. “At best, agricultural field laborers are undervalued, and at worst, they are brutally exploited.” And now, their work is becoming even more hazardous as a result of climate change, with cascading impacts on pesticide, fires, a pandemic and heat exposure. There is no federal heat standard that ensures the safety and health of workers who are exposed to dangerous heat conditions in the workplace. Only California (2005), Washington (2021) and Minnesota have passed state laws to protect outdoor workers from fatal heat. To highlight the shade issue in California agricultural fields, the 2005 law requiring shade and clean water was amended in 2015 to tighten loopholes that enabled some farms to claim they were providing shade for workers in the form of the shade under trucks, a single small beach umbrella, and tarps staked on sticks a foot above the ground. Between 1992 and 2017, heat stress injuries have killed 815 U.S. workers and seriously injured more than 70,000. But this federal information doesn’t tell the whole story. Researchers face a lack of reliable and accessible public information about the lives and working conditions of farmworkers and the data is underreported. Researchers have estimated that US government reports of occupational injuries in agriculture miss 79% of nonfatal injuries and 74% of deaths (Leigh, Du, and McCurdy 2014; Leigh, McCurdy, and Schenker 2001). This means that the data is literally not there. Modern society is built upon the backs of these invisible workers with invisible stories.
Again, regarding the prompt, ‘what happens to our economic and political systems, when animals can’t be owned or be treated like a natural resource?’- the question needs to expand to include people and we need to deeply change the industrialized and exploitative system of modern agriculture. What might help move us in this direction? A few ideas are:
Funding into hands of smaller farms: Much of the huge funds for agricultural subsidies that are meant for small farms end up in the hands of big ag companies which are more adept at navigating the application process. Getting support funds into the hands of smaller farms and to black owned farms that have historically been denied pivotal support loans would help expand the space for the growth of new labor practices and farming systems that are more sustainable.
Collaborations across farms and land back: Collaborations between Indigenous peoples and other farmers can create new spaces to grow sustainable farming, equitable practices, and elevate the Indigeneous names and stories of organisms in the local biome. An example is the Japanese American Inaba family farm collaborating with and selling land back to the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. Virgil Lewis, the vice-chairman of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council, says farming this land and sharing practices will “help restore the self-sufficiency the tribes used to have in the era before Safeway and McDonalds.” Landback initiatives, such as the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust enable Indigeous peoples to bring back their agricultural and sustainable land practices in collaboration with community and university groups.
Collaborations among diverse stakeholders: During the height of COVID19 crisis, the Monterey County Coalition of Agriculture or MC-COA started gathering a group of stakeholders that include ag industry representatives, county staff, health officials, academics, and farmworker advocates. Members include two of the Monterey Board of Supervisors and County staff, Monterey and Santa Cruz County Health Department staff and clinicians, the Monterey and Santa Cruz Ag Commissioners, the Monterey County Farm Bureau, Grower-Shipper Association, the Strawberry Commission, The Monterey Vintners and Growers Association, Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, Natividad Medical Center, CRLA, Inc., Lideres Campesinas, Xinampa, the Immigration Task Force, PPE4CC, and Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas (CSVS). As a representative of Xinampa in many of these weekly meetings, I saw how diverse perspectives can come together to create innovative solutions including the voices of ag workers themselves. For example, when asked, field workers shared that one way they imagined containing COVID19 exposure in the fields was to think about the whole day’s journey and restrict carpool groups and lunch break groups to work crew groups to avoid expanding exposure. Other collaborative solutions included the renting of motels by coalition orgs to house field workers with COVID as the field workers were not able to self isolate in their normal housing environments.
New spaces for discussion: Who gets to imagine the future of equitable and sustainable living for animals and people? Agricultural field workers and those close to the land need to be included and invited in the brainstorming of future equitable farming. What might these conversation spaces look like as they invite people to bring their knowledge and perspectives? Might they be in Indigenous ag worker labor group centers like The Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño or in agricultural worker community gardens like the Community Garden in Natividad Creek Park, community biolabs like Xinampa in Salinas and in programs of land based learning spaces like Kupu, preserving land and empowering youth? Might there also be national and regional intergenerational/interorganizational brainstorming makerspaces/labs that engage youth in collaborations with researchers, activists, artists, and organisms, like BioJam Camp?
Nurturing such spaces and collaborations can grow the foundations for new economic systems that are not driven by short term quarterly numbers and the exploitation of people and other earthlings. These spaces can frame new agricultural pathways that draw upon past knowledge, as well as grow ideas for parallel and distributed growing pathways that are inclusive of perspectives from all organisms involved in the biome systems. For example, to address future protective face mask needs and growing fire issues in California, might we collaborate with mycelium grown in local agricultural waste to locally grow biodegradable fire break structures and functioning field worker protective masks that ag workers co-design and co-prototype? How might we build upon the dreams, instead of upon the backs of earthlings to imagine the shape of the future? All organisms who have been historically identified with numbered tags are individuals and members of interconnected biomes. All have stories of community and selfhood to share and ideas to contribute if we create the spaces for such collaborations to flourish.
“With only 10% of the US working in agriculture, there is a massive disconnect between many of our lives and our understanding of agricultural workers lives and the exploitative system ‘big ag’ is built upon. At best, agricultural field laborers are undervalued, and at worst, they are brutally exploited.”
Corinne Okada Taraka is a bioartist and community STEAM educator who collaborates with community organizations, museums, and community biolabs to elevate local and cultural knowledge in STEAM explorations.
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