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Fair Food Project in West Michigan: Does it promote Food Justice or West Michigan Nice

September 19, 2019

On Saturday, MiBiz published an article announcing that the Non-Profit Migrant Legal Aid has a new program called the Fair Food Project. 

According to the Migrant Legal Aid website

The Fair Food Pledge is a partnership between Migrant Legal aid, food entrepreneurs and agriculture dependent retailers in which vendors and employers are jointly monitored for fair and ethical treatment of farmworkers. If farmworkers are unlawfully treated, this whistleblower program responds to the violation by alerting vendors and agriculture dependent retailers of the violation.

However, the language of the project is rather vague, without specifics about what it means to be treated ethically or fairly.

The Executive Director of Migrant Legal Aid, Teresa Hendricks, who is quoted in the MiBiz article, states:

“The workers have a limited season to make the bulk of their money and the growers have a limited time to get their products to market. Neither one of them would prefer to be in a lawsuit. This is a way that we offer voluntary compliance, immediate action and a market-based remedy.” 

A market-based remedy? That simply will not work. Market-based solutions simply do not work. For instance, the farmers can continue to pay farmworkers whatever they want, since there are no minimum wage requirement for farmworkers. This means that workers will continue to be exploited. The Director of Migrant Legal Aid admits this in the MiBiz article saying of migrant farmworkers, “They remain the poorest of the working poor.”

Check out this video produced by Migrant Legal Aid, which briefly explains the Fair Food Project.

The video states that Migrant Legal Aid will be monitoring for unfair treatment, but never says how they will be able to do that. Migrant Legal Aid also states on their website that. this project is inspired by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers located in Florida. However, what the non-profit fails to say is that the Coalition of Immoklee Workers is a worker-based human rights organization that is made up mostly of migrant farmworkers who use boycotts and strikes to hold farmers and the food industry accountable for exploitation and other abuses, unlike the model that Migrant Legal Aid is proposing. This could be because there are no existing unions for migrant farmworkers in West Michigan, which has allowed farm owners to take advantage of farmworkers for decades, despite the fact that West Michigan has some of the highest concentrations of migrant workers in the country.

At the end of the MiBiz article, Hendricks states that the growers benefit from the program by “avoiding strikes and boycotts.” The fact is that historically, the only way that farmworkers have won any form of justice, it is exactly because they have engaged in boycotts and strikes.

Lastly, the Director of Migrant Legal Aid frames this partnership as a way of practicing West Michigan Nice, stating:

“The Fair Food Project is a Midwest-designed program to work the way companies and cultures work here. We’re working with their corporate responsibility departments instead of against them and they’re voluntarily cooperating with us. It’s Midwest Nice: Tell us how to fix it and give us an opportunity to fix it first.”

The reality is that corporations don’t fix it unless they are forced to. This is the entire history of social movements in the US, where workers have forced companies and corporations to agreeing to safer working condition, better wages, benefits, worker safety standards, etc. None of these things were ever a gift from corporations, but only through the struggle of workers.

My fear is that West Michigan retailers will sign the pledge, which is great PR for them, but it will do virtually nothing to fundamentally improve the lives of migrant farmworkers.

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