The Whistle No One Blows

When we hear about whistleblower laws, we mostly think about government employees reporting corruption, waste or malfeasance of some sort, or a private company employee exposing the truth about workplace abuse, defective manufacturing, safety hazards, or executive excesses.

In an ideal world, whistleblower laws are designed to offer job protections, and sometimes there are also financial rewards offered in exchange for the risks taken by those speaking out – the idea being that the information is for the public good. 

The concept is evolving. Italy now has a whistleblower decree designed to potentially benefit migrant workers with easier-to-obtain work and/or residence permits – if they step forward. According to an National Public Radio (NPR) report in the United States, it is not expected to have much impact in many parts of the country, because the above-ground economy is so poor that the underground illegal economy simply has to flourish; that can mean even lower pay and more “semi-slave conditions” than are typically the case for so many of these workers.

If an agricultural concern can’t sell its products at the rate it expects, then it needs to keep the costs down somehow. Suppression of basic freedoms and dignity is one cruel but convenient way to do that.

The concept of whistle blowing for those recruited to capture the bounty in the fertile fields across the world has merit, of course. Almost by definition, it seems, legions of migrant workers are practically held captive, severely underpaid, and treated more like the produce they pick… than as people.

Far too often, they are selected, used up, and discarded.

But, it’s money for them, more money than they can make back home (at least that’s what is promised). Often, though, so-called debts to the employer get run up, and the illegal workers are truly trapped. They either finish what they were ‘hired’ to do, or they get abandoned in a foreign country with… nothing. That’s not a choice; it’s a sentence.

With these examples all too real, one might not expect the migrant workers to be blowing the whistle too often or too loudly.

Here’s a thought… for the millions who just love their fruit arriving in their hometown stores or markets at the perfect time – in perfect condition – and at a reasonable price. Maybe they take a stand, and demand that these workers be retained legally and treated humanely – well above the minimum standards. How about a boycott of the food so many of us savour, until concrete changes are made? Hit the culpable employers and their benefactors where it hurts… right in the profit margin, until they listen.

It may be true that migrant workers reap more financial rewards for harvesting produce in faraway places than they would garner in any fashion in an impoverished homeland, but it doesn’t have to be true that their welfare is disregarded, their lives all but disposable.

Prosperous countries can do technological wonders, invent the most amazing solutions to problems, stop a disease in its tracks. But these nations can’t manage to make sure migrant workers don’t have to blow a whistle themselves – to be seen and heard.

This accepted abuse is an age-old problem that’s too easy to ignore. Some people are all but invisible.

We should all think about whose back is breaking the next time we put a few pieces of produce in our shopping basket. Human rights for all sometimes means blowing the whistle – whether your job, your paycheck, or your life is on the line or not.

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