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A few decades ago, the plight of farm workers was at the forefront of the nation’s attention. Through the decades we read “The Grapes of Wrath” and then later watched “The Harvest of Shame.” In the 60’s and 70’s people boycotted, marched, and/or fasted in support of workers.
This past year, we were reminded, if only for brief moments, that the plight of farm workers is still very much a serious concern. United Farm Workers’ founder, the late Cesar Chavez, was honored for his leadership and vision by the U.S. Postal Service with a new commemorative stamp. And in the spring, we all watched in horror as nearly one hundred immigrant farm workers were found inside a locked tractor-trailer in the sweltering heat.
Beyond these occasional headlines, the hardships that farm workers and their families continue to suffer are rarely on the evening news but still have a claim on our conscience.
Our Conference has long stood by farmers and farm workers in their struggles to live with dignity and make a decent living for their families as they provide affordable and plentiful food for us and our families. Beginning in the late sixties, the U.S. bishops decried their low wages, untreated health problems, inadequate education and housing, and lack of year-round employment. The late Msgr. George Higgins, who wrote this Labor Day statement for so many years, was a pre-eminent leader and champion in this cause. He condemned the fact that most farm workers were not covered by national labor laws, including the minimum wage and unemployment insurance. The fact is, these labor protections are still sorely lacking for farm workers. Such seemingly modest safeguards, which most other workers enjoy already, would offer steps towards a better life.
Later this year, our Bishops’ Conference will consider a significant document on farmers, farm workers, and the agricultural sector. This reflection will raise some new issues–increasing concentration and globalization, trade, and genetically modified foods. But on this Labor Day we should focus on an old test for our nation and Church: How do we treat those who harvest and prepare our food? Sadly, they are the “least of these” (Matt. 25) in our own time.
Today these workers are increasingly moving from the fields to the factories: working in meat and poultry processing plants, and large hog and cattle operations. They settle in rural areas and too often find themselves linguistically and culturally isolated and vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination because of their legal status and language barriers. More than 50 percent of farm workers in the U.S. are undocumented and more than 80 percent are foreign-born.
But their vulnerability does not begin in this country. They are also preyed upon in their desperate effort to reach the United States. In May, when police discovered the aforementioned truck crammed with immigrants—nineteen of the 100 men, women, and children were dead, including a five year old child. The U.S. Border Patrol reports that last year 371 people died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican officials believe the number is higher. Yet, thousands still take the risk, still come to find work and a better life for themselves and their families. We recognize that, as an alternative to widespread undocumented migration, a just and fair legal pathway must be established that protects the basic labor rights of foreign-born workers and recognizes the reality of so many of these workers in the field. In addition, farm workers already present and working in the U.S. should have an opportunity to earn permanent legal residency.
When farm workers do come, they too often find meager jobs, decrepit housing, and unsafe conditions. Some end up living under bridges or even in caves. Those who do find housing in labor camps sometimes live without decent sanitation, despite state and federal health laws. Violations of wage and hour laws are commonplace. Their children often must join them in the fields because without their help, the family may not survive. They can face death and injuries on the job from dangerous farm equipment and the threat of poisoning from the pesticides used to protect the crops.
Some farmers treat their workers well and we should commend and acknowledge their efforts on this Labor Day. But too many do not, often relying on labor contractors, some of whom essentially traffic in human labor and suffering for economic profit. Many of us seem content to avert our eyes or ignore the reality that so many who provide our food live in such misery.
We call upon our nation to develop policies that reflect a fundamental respect for the dignity and rights of agricultural workers. At a minimum, we must ensure that agricultural workers earn a decent wage for themselves and their families and live in conditions that are safe and humane. Comprehensive immigration reform which features legalization is needed to ensure that undocumented migrant farm workers obtain legal status and can assert their basic labor rights.
Our Catholic teaching tells us that the economy, including the agricultural sector, must serve people and not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living, and farming is one pre-eminent example of our participation in God’s creation. Catholic teaching on the dignity of work calls us to engage in productive work and supports the right to decent and fair wages, health care, and time off. Workers, including agricultural workers, have a right to organize to protect these rights and to have a voice in the workplace.
In California, after years of organizing efforts, the United Farm Workers union (UFW) recently signed a contract with the nation's largest direct employer of strawberry workers, many of whom are recent immigrants. The hard-won contract should improve the wages, benefits, working conditions, and job protection for some 800 workers near Watsonville, California. We applaud the efforts of the workers, growers, and the UFW for negotiating these changes.
However, even when workers are organized, their employers might refuse to negotiate a contract with the new union. Nationally, 32 percent of workers still have no contract two years after the initial election. Because of weak and ineffective labor laws, organizing workers is difficult in the best of situations but especially farm workers who have fewer labor protections. One bright spot was the recent California legislation that requires mandatory arbitration so that workers who do organize can get a contract.
This Labor Day, as we reflect on work and workers in this land, let us renew our commitment to stand in solidarity with farm workers and other agricultural workers in defending their life and dignity and helping them to secure decent wages, safe working conditions, and better labor protections. Let us stand with the men and women in Immokalee, Florida, who pick tomatoes, the poultry workers in Maryland and Delaware, the fruit and vegetable pickers in California, and the meat packers in the Midwest. The plight of agricultural workers may not be on the evening news or in the headlines, but it should be at the heart of our thoughts, reflections, and priorities as we celebrate Labor Day this year.
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