Who Keeps Working on Labor Day?

Labor Day coincides with a busy time of the year in U.S. agriculture and for the most part, farm laborers do not get a day off.
by on Monday, September 6, 2021

Why Not Everyone Gets A Long Weekend

A man tends tomatoes at Viva Organica in Mexico. Photo: Viva Organica

Labor Day has been a holiday in the U.S. for more than 100 years. It was established after a sequence of events involving movements and activism around labor practices. 

The Origins of Labor Day

In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average worker labored 12 hours a day and seven days of the week in order to earn a basic living. Children as young as five or six often toiled away in mills, factories and mines across the country as well, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages.

People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities, and breaks.

Manufacturing increasingly overtook agriculture as the foundation of American employment. Labor unions grew more prominent and active. They organized strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and negotiate better hours and pay.

In 1882 one demonstration included 10,000 workers marching in a Labor Day parade. Around the same time, 13 people were killed during the Pullman strike where they protested cut wages.

Labor Day didn’t become official until 1894, when President Cleveland finally signed it into law. The official founder is debatable, and the history around it includes a convoluted series of events. 

End of Summer & Prime Harvest Time

Today, most people enjoy a day off from work and a long weekend in early September filled with outdoor picnics and barbecues. For many people in the United States, Labor Day signifies the end of summer—not much more than a festive holiday.

However, the holiday also coincides with a busy time of the year in U.S. agriculture, and for the most part, farm laborers do not get a day off. Tomatoes don’t stop ripening in early September. On top of that, the agriculture industry in the United States has been notoriously bad at honoring wholesome labor practices.

Even today, farm laborers do not receive the same protections as other laborers. While it varies by state, and some states have better protections than others, many agricultural workers are vulnerable to a variety of unsafe labor practices and work conditions. Agricultural work always ranks among the top most dangerous jobs. Yet in many states, children as young as 12 can still legally work in the fields—younger than any other industry.

A migrant worker from Mexico harvests blackberries in North Carolina. Photo: Amy Schmidt

Did you know that often farmworkers get paid what is called “piece rate” (by weight), rather than by hours worked, and as a result don’t receive overtime pay?

These are just a couple of examples of how the agricultural industry is lagging behind on labor practices that are standard in other industries. 

A number of organizations in the United States advocate for better legislation and conditions for agricultural workers. United Farm Workers is the nation’s first and largest farm worker union. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is another worker-led organization. The CIW initiated a Fair Food program that guarantees fair wages and better work conditions.

Many organic and sustainable methods incorporate practices that are good for the earth, but the people who work the earth are just as important. This is why so many fair trade and food initiatives have begun. 

A consumer may purchase an organic product from a local farm that uses unfair labor practices with its workers. While ingredients must be labeled on products, labor practices don’t have to be. Often, oppressive labor conditions are one of the factors that keep food prices low. Large corporations continue making massive profits while on-the-ground workers barely make enough to live on.

Transparency Matters on Labor Day & Every Day

At Producers Market, we believe that transparency is key. We want to make it easy for you to learn what farming and production practices you are supporting with your purchases. 

Many of our members are not just offering products for sale. They are using their business models to create micro and macro changes and offer solutions to global problems. When you hear directly from producers about their practices, you can connect with them, their workers, and the products they make.

Hand harvesting cacao.

Labor is key all along the supply chain. And when there is transparency, it is easier to ensure that laborers are not oppressed, exploited, or enslaved. 

So in honor of Labor Day, we encourage you to seek out transparency and support healthy labor practices. Go ahead and have a look through our platform to learn more about our producers’ innovative solutions and business models.

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