Farmworkers: Advocating for Justice - Catholic Rural Life

Farmworkers: Advocating for Justice

Agriculture is not only how we grow food, but how we treat those who bring food to our tables. Catholic social teachings about the dignity of work make it clear that farm workers must be able to support themselves and their families through their work.

Farm and food workers must be able to survive the risks associated with field work and food processing lines. There is great physical stress experienced when a laborer works long days in the field or inside meat/poultry processing factories.

Whether working in open fields picking fruits and vegetables or employed in meat processing, dairy farms, poultry houses, or hog confinement operations, many migrant laborers are ill-housed, poorly paid, threatened and vulnerable.

Consumers need to join in and advocate for fair and safe working conditions in the harvesting and processing of our foods. We should care if laborers are exploited and mistreated; we would want them to have safe and healthy work conditions like anyone else.

One of our campaigns is “Eating is a Moral Act” in which we raise questions about how food reaches our tables. Beyond the convenient packaging we see in supermarkets and grocery stores, we must take the time to ask: What is a socially responsible, economically just and sustainable way to grow food? There are many facets to this complicated question – impacts on farmers, rural communities, the environment, global trade – and we must not forget impacts on workers in the fields or inside factory farms and processing facilities.

What is the impact of harsh working conditions, restrictive contract terms and discrimination on those employed in the food sector? Do the arduous and sometimes perilous tasks within a processing plant or in the fields contribute to physical and mental health problems of workers? “Eating as a Moral Act” is our effort to find a way to a fair, just and sustainable food system that benefits producers, consumers and the agricultural worker.

Concern of Catholic Bishops

Farm workers have been among the most visible concerns of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In “Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers and Farmworkers” (2003), they renewed their commitment to lift up the situation of agricultural workers and to work to improve their lives and those of their families. Farmworkers are among the most vulnerable and exploited people in our land. Their situation demands a response from people of faith.

Poor Working and Living Conditions

Agricultural workers are given low wages. The seasonal nature of their work and the inadequacy of the minimum wage keep most living in poverty. The hourly pay of agricultural workers should be increased, and enforcement mechanisms should be available to ensure that they receive just pay and benefits. Farmworkers, who work long hours during a seasonal period, should have overtime pay as a measure of justice. Payment methods such as “piece rates” should not be used to prevent workers from earning a just wage.

A living wage for agricultural workers could help their families live a just and decent life, help to stabilize the workforce, and stimulate rural communities without significantly impacting food prices domestically and internationally. Since most benefits generally are not available to them as part of an employment package, federal, state, and local laws should be amended to ensure that all workers are entitled to health care, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and Social Security. In addition, agricultural workers’ low wages and the scarcity of affordable housing in rural areas make it essential that funding for housing be increased.

Need for Better Access to Services

To participate fully in the community where they reside and work, farmworkers and their families need access to services and mobility in those communities.

Agricultural labor involves some of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, with workers exposed to harsh working conditions, pesticides and other chemicals, and long hours of labor-intensive work.

Labor protections are currently inadequate; for those protections that do exist in law, enforcement is random and ineffective. Labor protections for agricultural workers should be guaranteed in law, consistent with protections for other workers in the country.

The law must also be amended to allow workers to challenge in civil court employers who do not provide sanitary and safe working conditions, who violate wage and hour laws, or who use dangerous pesticides. Working conditions should be consistent with appropriate federal standards.

Agricultural workers should enjoy the same protections as other U.S. workers, including the right to join together to have a voice in the workplace and bargain with their employers.

Migrant Farm Worker Justice

Farm workers and migrant laborers deserve to be treated with dignity, as any member of the human family ought to be. Whether employed in meat processing, vegetable and fruit fields, dairy farms, poultry houses, or hog confinement operations, many immigrant laborers are ill-housed, poorly paid, and vulnerable to threats.

In the view of the Church, all agricultural workers are entitled to safe working conditions, adequate housing, and benefits for themselves and their families. This is paramount; it deserves the support and affirmation of our local communities and the nation in general.

Farm Worker Organizations & Advocates Over the years, we have joined forces with farm worker justice groups to advocate for fair policies and raise consumer awareness. Four of these are highlighted here (reverse) and we invite our readers to visit their websites. There you will find more detailed information about farm workers, access to resources for your parish or communities, and ways to stay involved through campaigns and action alerts.

Failure to provide adequate farm worker pay and working conditions, and failures to reduce the use of pesticides and other chemicals harmful to humans, have left us with a national food system that disregards the dignity of workers in the field. A creative initiative among farm worker advocates is to create a new certification system for agricultural products grown in the United States. The idea is to develop a market-led approach that will help consumers identify products that have been certified as meeting standards for fairness in the treatment of workers, along with reduction in the use of pesticides in food production.

While many consumers want to help farm workers, they often don’t have the tools to do so. It is long past the time to introduce a sense of responsibility throughout the food system, give consumers the tools they need, and end the harvest of injustice. Only then will eating fully become a moral act.

National Farm Worker Ministry

National office located in St. Louis, Mo.; ministry offices in California, Florida, North Carolina, Oregon

National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM) is a faith-based organization which supports farm workers as they organize for justice and empowerment. Nearly two million farm workers work in America’s orchards and fields, plant nurseries, dairies and feedlots. Many of these migrant workers labor long hours for low wages and suffer from heat stress and pesticide exposure in the fields. Isolated and excluded from some of the laws protecting other workers, migrant workers rely on concerned consumers to help achieve a measure of justice in the fields. When United Farm Workers founder César Chávez began organizing in the 1960s, he called on the religious community to change its emphasis from charity to justice. NFWM became the vehicle for people of faith to respond to that call. NFWM brings together national denominations, state councils of churches, religious orders and congregations, and concerned individuals to act with the farm workers to achieve fundamental change in their living and working conditions. Grounded in faith, NFWM helps to organize vigils, coordinates boycotts and educates constituents.

United Farm Workers of America

National headquarters in Keene, Calif.

Founded in 1962 by Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) is the nation’s largest farm workers union and currently active in 10 states. The UFW continues to organize in major agricultural industries across the nation; they have over 25,000 workers under contract in California, Washington, Florida and Texas. Recent years have witnessed dozens of key UFW union contract victories, among them the largest strawberry, rose, winery and mushroom firms in California and the nation. Seventy-five percent of California’s mushroom industry is now under union contract.  In 2007, the United Farm Workers signed its first contract with Salinas-based D’Arrigo Bros., California’s third-largest vegetable company. Also in 2007, the UFW signed a contract with Three Mile Canyon Farms (America’s largest dairy) and the first major union contract protecting farm workers in Oregon. Many recent UFW-sponsored laws and regulations aide farm workers: in California for example, the first state regulation in the United States prevents further heat deaths of farm workers. The UFW is also pushing its historic bipartisan and broadly backed AgJobs immigration reform bill.

Farm Labor Organizing Committee

Main office in Toledo, Ohio; offices in North Carolina and Mexico

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (FLOC), is both a social movement and a labor union. Their immediate constituency is migrant workers in the agricultural industry, but they are also involved with other immigrant workers and national and international coalitions concerned with justice. The FLOC vision emphasizes human rights as the standard and self-determination as the process for achieving these rights. FLOC works to change the structures of society to enable workers to have a direct voice in their own conditions. Baldemar Velásquez is the founder and President of FLOC. Along with the driving force of his vision, FLOC depends on the courage, sacrifice and dedication of migrant workers who have faced intimidation and even violence when standing up for their right. FLOC also recognizes the crucial support of community networks throughout society. These include churches, unions, and community groups which have carried the struggle within their own communities. They have boycotted products, raised funds to cover FLOC’s basic costs, and pressured corporations and politicians to recognize the rights of migrant and immigrant workers.

Farmworker Justice

Headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Farmworker Justice is a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions, immigration status, health, occupational safety, and access to justice. Founded in 1981, Farmworker Justice works with farmworkers and their organizations throughout the nation. In 1996, they became a subsidiary corporation of National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest constituency-based Hispanic civil rights organization. Farmworker Justice engages in litigation, administrative and legislative advocacy, training and technical assistance, coalition-building, public education and support for union organizing. In collaboration with farmworker groups and others, Farmworker Justice develops agendas for improving the effectiveness of federal and state regulation of the agricultural workplace. Furthermore, Farmworker Justice meets with high-level agency officials, submits written comments on proposed regulations, and files formal complaints in order to promote the interests of farmworkers. When these methods are inadequate, Farmworker Justice seeks remedies through litigation, media attention and requests for Congressional investigations. Farmworker Justice also has been in Mexico educating farmworkers  about their rights when they are employed in the United States under the H-2A temporary foreign worker program.

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