Dignity of Farmworkers: Response to Washington Post

In our recent blog postings, FAQ: Does the Church Care About Animals?, we began with the Church’s perspective on the care of animals (Part I) and then broadened our discussion to the care of creation, impacts to the environment and our concern for family farm operations (Part II).

In another critical aspect of these kinds of livestock operations, the Washington Post ran a story over the weekend (9/24/17) about safety concerns for farm laborers at large-scale dairy operations:

Deaths of Farmworkers in Cow Manure Ponds Put Oversight of Dairy Farms into Question

Needless to say, the Church has an abiding concern for workers and has spoken in no uncertain terms about the dignity of work and the safe livelihoods of workers.

“The economy must serve people, not the other way around.” So declare the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who go on to say:

Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected — the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.

At their website, USCCB lists scriptural passages about work, such as Jeremiah’s stern words, “Woe to him who treats his workers unjustly” (Jer. 22:13), and highlights teachings by recent and past popes, such as this one from St. John Paul II:

Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes more a human being. (On Human Work [Laborem Exercens], #9)

So it was alarming to us to read the Washington Post article by Tim Craig which begins by describing the death of Alberto Navarro Munoz, a worker at a large dairy operation in Idaho, when the tractor he was driving tipped over into a pit of cow manure.

Munoz’s death, which occurred in the nearby town of Shelley last September, was one of two fatal accidents last year involving dairymen who either choked or drowned in pits of cow manure. Another laborer from Mexico died last month after he was crushed by a skid loader, used to move feed and manure.

Craig reports in his story that “the deaths have rattled Idaho’s dairy industry as well as local immigrant communities that do the bulk of the work producing nearly 15 billion pounds of milk annually on the industrial-sized farms in the state’s southern prairie.” A major point of Craig’s story is that the transition from family farm-size operations into big agribusinesses – involving thousands of cows and massive machinery – has raised new safety concerns.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, agricultural workers suffer fatal on-the-job injuries at a rate higher than police officers and more than twice the rate of construction workers.

As farm operations have grown larger and larger, these have also become increasingly reliant on immigrant workers, many from Mexico. Without sufficient training or experience dealing with dangerous equipment and large animals, Craig graphically reports that “these farm laborers are especially vulnerable to workplace deaths, such as being electrocuted, crushed by tractors, kicked by a heifer or beat up by a bull.”

Seeking solutions

To their credit in Idaho, Craig reports that dairy industry leaders are rushing to implement new statewide training protocols aimed largely at its Spanish-speaking workforce. “About 90 percent of the state’s 8,100 dairy farmworkers were born outside the United States.”

Federal oversight of worker safety in the agriculture industry remains relatively light, mainly due to the fact that regulations established in years past for small, family operations haven’t kept up with the rapidly consolidating industry. The burden of oversight falls to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the U.S. Department of Labor, but they tend to conduct inspections only after the report of a serious accident or fatality.

As we know from strong reactions against EPA regulations, farm operations will resist government oversight by OSHA. Farmers and ranchers already feel under siege by regulators and consumers who are concerned about food safety, use of agricultural chemicals and nutrient runoff.

Solutions will not be easy: agricultural leaders must find a way to balance the financial impacts on the their industry with the safety and livelihoods of workers. Catholic Rural Life strives to listen to both sides, but knows we must adhere to the teachings of the Church. There is much to examine and discern, so we invite all to the common table of hope and justice. Dialogue in itself will not solve all our problems, but it can show the way to a fuller life.

As we say near the end of the Vocation of the Agricultural Leader, our reflection on faith, food and the environment:

You, agricultural leaders, can show the way to this fuller life by imagining a future of right relationships in our social, economic and ecological interactions. For those who believe in the Way and the Truth, you no doubt feel challenged to live in a way consonant with your faith, especially when economic and structural forces press you to contradict your religious beliefs. When you incorporate spirituality into your leadership, there is the hope you will cause others to seek their true selves and foster a greater sense of meaning and significance in “tilling and keeping” the earth.

Robert Gronski is a Consultant for Catholic Rural Life. He tracks policy perspectives on food, farm, environmental, and rural community issues and helps frame these within the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching.

Photos by Kyle Green / For the Washington Post