Field of Screens

How technology could improve life for farm workers.

A farm day laborer works at a tomato field.
A farm day laborer works at a tomato field in Mexico’s San Quintin Valley on April 23, 2015.

Photo by Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday, June 4, Future Tense—a partnership of SlateArizona State University, and New America—will host a debate in Washington, D.C., on the future of jobs. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

In 1977 the famed labor leader Cesar Chavez feared that an oncoming technological revolution would stand in the way of organizing farm workers. “No sooner than we will have [the union] built,” he told his executive board, “than we’re going to be faced with other forms of poverty … with mechanization.” Rather than invest anymore in organizing workers, he preferred to “start taking over the land” and “solve the problem of machines by making the machines work for us.” As the decade closed, Chavez turned inward to cultivate gardens and community at La Paz, the United Farm Workers headquarters, leaving behind many of the gains made through engaging workers, the public, and the government.

The notion that machines would replace farm workers—thereby making unions obsolete—hasn’t come to pass. Technological advances have been made in the fields, but not to the degree that Chavez imagined. At best, these innovations have produced a relationship between machine, grower, and worker that often places the care of fruits and vegetables ahead of the well-being of their handlers. At worst, growers have opted out of expensive, labor-saving technology due, in part, to the continued low cost of exploitable labor, perpetuating the cycle of farm worker poverty.

Some organizations have hitched the potential of technology to Chavez’s consumer awareness strategies for a better, more informed farm worker movement. By merging on-the-ground actions with cutting-edge online organizing, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers brought social justice to a corner of the market—tomato harvesters in Florida. Social media and blogging helped generate storefront protests, marches in the fields, and campus teach-ins that brought the big retailers like Taco Bell, KFC, and Walmart to the bargaining table. Today, growers and buyers of tomatoes pay a “penny-per-pound” through the Fair Food Program that ensures workers are paid what they are owed, are not held against their will, and work and live in humane conditions.

These advances in worker justice have been limited to the United States even as food production has increasingly crossed the U.S.-Mexican border. Over the last decade, farm exports from Mexico have tripled to $7.6 billion. Last year, U.S. supermarkets—including Walmart and Whole Foods—imported $55 million in Mexican tomatoes while purporting to be socially responsible.

That claim came crashing down this past winter when a Los Angeles Times series—titled “Product of Mexico”—revealed stories of withheld wages, children working in the fields, abysmal living conditions, and even slavery on Mexican megafarms. Such conditions existed alongside technology to cultivate, process, and transport fruits and vegetables. Investments in greenhouses and transportation networks now permit Mexican farms to grow 10 months out of the year and supply more than half the tomatoes consumed in the United States.

The L.A. Times series’ influence has been felt on both sides of the border. Walmart is leading a new initiative—the International Produce Alliance to Promote a Socially Responsible Industry—to bring accountability to Mexican farming practices. In Mexico, the Ministry of Agriculture has pledged its commitment to the alliance and promised reforms, although specifics have not been announced.

These trends are encouraging, but they lack two major items: third-party audits and technology that improves workers’ lives. On the former, the Fair Food Program in Florida has been successful largely due to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ insistence that workers participate in the audits of farming practices. In general, Florida has pursued “worker-driven social responsibility.” But so far, the Walmart initiatives in Mexico involve industry and government officials only. Although the ministry represents the interest of the people of Mexico, it needs worker-centered perspectives to ensure best practices. Without them, this effort is yet another exercise in “corporate social responsibility” that places the emphasis on cleansing the image of the companies rather than delivering justice to the workers in the fields.

It’s equally important to expand the use of technology so that it supports worker welfare, not just food safety. Stories of worker paychecks being hijacked by unethical labor contractors seem out of step in a world where electronic banking is becoming the norm. Equally troubling are the great migrations that many indigenous people make from southern to northern Mexico, only to find that the conditions are not as promised or the work not as plentiful. While we might wish for a world in which farm workers could stay home to raise their own crops, this is not the reality we—or they—live in. If workers are going to have to migrate, we need to employ mobile technology to improve their lives. In addition to overalls, clippers, and hoes, every farm worker should be outfitted with a mobile phone and service provided by the companies that benefit from his or her labor. Maybe we need a pennies-per-pound campaign to ensure that every laborer gets a smartphone and a crowdfunding campaign to help raise the money to get this started. The people of San Quitín, Mexico, have already begun the latter to address their material needs.

While critics may focus on the potential surveillance that comes with such devices, I see the ability for the least powerful in society to navigate across great distances, to become more connected to the world, and to report the misconduct of growers and contractors. On the last point, think of how the problem of police misconduct against black Americans has been transported from the inner cities to the public consciousness of all Americans. The smartphone played a critical role in recording these abuses and transmitting them to the world. Farm workers need similar remedies to their own isolation. With the vine of social media, Mexican farm workers—in fact, farm workers on either side of border—would not have to wait for a reporter to expose their problems. And, with a transnational network of nongovernmental organizations doing routine audits and insisting on appropriate penalties for violations of mutually agreed upon rules like those stated in the Fair Food Program, justice might arrive to Mexican farms sooner than anticipated.

Placed in the right hands, the smartphone could become a useful tool for farm worker justice. In doing so, this would bring society closer to Chavez’s idea of making machines work for us.