A Chavez for here and now

20140810_BVelasquezAtFLOCFor many migrant farmworkers, things haven’t changed much since the 1970s when the legendary activist Cesar Chavez co-founded, with Dolores Huerta, the union known today as the United Farm Workers.

Today in North Carolina and surrounding states, the people working one of the most dangerous jobs in America live in squalor. They enjoy few of the legal protections everyone else takes for granted, such as the right to overtime pay. They are paid the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, but only if the contractista or nickelero or other middleman between grower and worker doesn’t take a cut.

Why didn’t the Chavez-era changes help these farmworkers? Because California, where most UFW members live and work, is a very different place from North Carolina. As a right-to-work state unions are not welcome here. But that’s not stopping Baldemar Velasquez.

Like Cesar Chavez, the 67-year-old Velasquez knows first-hand what it’s like to be a farmworker. He started at age 6.

“The alternative was not eating,” Velasquez tells me, going on to describe a “conversion experience” in which he realized that his loss of childhood, and personal experience of abuse, called him to become the tireless spokesperson he is today.

He does a good job at it.

A 1989 recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, Velasquez is the co-founder with his father of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, or FLOC. Based in Toledo Ohio, this little-known union succeeded, after years of activism, strikes, and boycotting, in bringing unionization to workers for Campbell’s, Heinz, and other major buyers of agricultural products.

“We almost doubled the wages of the workers,” Velasquez says of the their success in Ohio. “We got the kids, instead of languishing in the labor camps, into Head Start and extended the hours to 6pm instead of 3 so parents could work a full day. And we renovated 65 or 70% of the squalor in labor camps thru a public-private partnership.”

In the late 1990s FLOC expanded to North Carolina. After a five-year boycott of the Mount Olive Pickle Company (“Don’t spend a nickel on a Mount Olive Pickle”) they signed a contract with the company and the North Carolina Growers Association, bringing union protections to some 7,000 workers in the Tarheel state.

But these represent but a small percent of all farmworkers in the region.

Earlier this year FLOC launched a campaign to sign up 5,000 new members during the 2014 harvest season. Six nights a week teams of organizers borrowed mostly from affiliated labor organizations fan out to camps—mostly run-down trailer homes and dilapidated houses—to educate workers about the benefits of joining the union. As of a few weeks ago they had signed up just under 1,000.

The union’s biggest obstacle? Worker fear.

FLOC Vice President Justin Flores speaks to union members at a meeting in Dudley, NC.
FLOC Vice President Justin Flores speaks to union members at a meeting in Dudley, NC.

According to FLOC Vice President Justin Flores, the first thing most workers ask when visited by an organizer is how FLOC can ensure they won’t be fired for joining the union. According to numerous FLOC officials, farmworkers are under constant threat of retaliation if they should speak out about working conditions, squalor in the camp, or wage theft.

Flores can rattle off a long list of examples they’ve heard about: Firing. Deportation. The worst? Contractors who remind the workers they know where their wives and children live back in back in Mexico or Guatemala, then suggesting or outright vowing to make their families suffer should the farmworker not do as he’s told.

This summer’s campaign has not been easy. In addition to farmworkers stifled by fear, their employers have not exactly rolled out the welcome mat. I wrote earlier about organizer Raul Jimenez handcuffed by a sheriff. Another team of organizers was briefly detained against their will, unable to leave the grower’s property until cell phone calls to the police made the threat-mongering detainers come to their senses. And FLOC’s Oscar Sanchez took a punch to his face from a representative of the North Carolina Grower’s Association—you can watch it on YouTube.

FLOC has singled out the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for accountability, portraying them as partly responsible for the status quo. The company is one of the largest buyer of North Carolina tobacco and could use its influence among growers, FLOC believes, to bring about change.

Velasquez wants Reynolds to recognize the union, to engage the third-party Dunlop Commission (as FLOC did in Ohio) to establish rules such as how workers can raise concerns without fear of retaliation, and to provide incentives to its growers to sign contracts with the union.

Baldemar Velasquez is ready to bring his plea to American consumers, and not just tobacco users. FLOC is considering boycotts of major outlets of Reynolds tobacco products: Convenience stores Kangaroo, WaWa and 7 Eleven.

If the boycott proceeds, customers of those chains will be asked to buy their gasoline and Slurpees somewhere else.

A spokesperson for R.J. Reynolds declined to comment for this story beyond what is on their website. There, the company emphasizes that it does not employ farm workers or grow its own tobacco. It describes efforts “to ensure that our suppliers have the training and resources they need to do the right thing for the people who play an important role in our supply chain.” These include efforts to assess conditions of its farmworkers and educate its growers.

Velasquez shrugs off these efforts as “diversionary” and missing the point. Farmworkers need a voice, he reiterates.

“When men and women are not recognized and don’t have a forum to make their claims, they can’t talk about health and safety or trafficking or any of these other symptoms, like child labor.”

It’s all about having a process of recognition, says Velasquez. “If you don’t have that you don’t have nothin’.”

American history may be on the side of Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC and North Carolina farmworkers. The Chavez lettuce and grape boycotts of the 1970s brought changes to the Western farmworker few could have imagined. FLOC itself can point to success in Ohio. And the 2001 boycott of Taco Bell by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers forced their parent company to sign on to the famously successful Fair Food Program, in which tomato buyers vow to pay “a penny a pound” more for tomatoes to benefit pickers in Florida. Even Walmart signed on, earlier this year.

With income inequality at record levels and growing media coverage of the plight of the American farmworker, the time may be right for Baldemar Velasquez to call for those boycotts to force a change.

It’s worked before and may soon work again.

FLOC union members and staff preparing for contract negotiations
FLOC union members and staff preparing for contract negotiations

These vecinos are more than just neighbors

Vecinos_HeightScaleWe were lost. That’s what I concluded from the back of the minivan going up and down mountain roads in western North Carolina, past tiny homes and trailer parks that tourists rarely see.

“The note says look for an RV next to a dumpster.” Devereaux was in the passenger seat trying to help driver Maria.

“I have a hunch it’s down here.” The car leaned precariously to the left as Maria made a sharp turn from the pavement onto a steep gravel road. “Oops!”

She righted the minivan as my stomach took its own precarious turn.

I was traveling with an outreach team from Vecinos (Spanish for neighbors), an agency that provides primary and preventative healthcare to migrant farmworkers. They were following a tip that a new migrant worker had arrived in the area, hoping to sign him up for the program.
Vecinos_Wess
Vecinos_MariaV

Maria’s hunch was right. They found the RV with not one but two new workers, both eager to sign up, and soon answering questions and getting their blood pressure, height and weight checked by the Vecinos team: Interns Devereaux Swaim (on a Student Action with Farmworkers fellowship) and Maria Vargas (herself a former farmworker) and staffer Wess Roberts. A handful of other workers at the camp teased their campesinos as they looked on.

As night began to fall a neighboring farmworker strolled over with his wife and daughter. Would they see him too? Sí, por supuesto. Of course.

Devereaux Swaim checks the blood pressure of a migrant farmworker as his daughter looks on
Devereaux Swaim checks the blood pressure of a migrant farmworker as his daughter looks on

Nurse practitioner Kathy Hefner inside the Vecinos van
Nurse practitioner Kathy Hefner inside the Vecinos van

Executive Director Amy Schmidt
Executive Director Amy Schmidt being briefed by the outreach team

The skies were pitch black by the time the white Vecinos van arrived. Executive Director Amy Schmidt and Nurse Practitioner Kathy Hefner had been at another camp giving exams; the van is equipped with a complete examination facility under a pop-up roof.

Amy’s eyes widened when she recognized one of the onlookers and went to say hello.

Soon this farmworker was inside the van getting a checkup and a clean bill of health, which relieved Amy and Kathy more than usual.

They hadn’t seen this man since the year before, when he arrived from Florida just days after major surgery. He needed time to recuperate, his doctors told him. But like many farmworkers he needed wages even more. I think Amy was happy just to see him alive.

These farmworkers earn around $250 a week, not near enough to afford preventive medical care. Health insurance is out of the question. Without Vecinos dropping in to offer free care and health education, I imagine many would find themselves in the ER one day, or worse.

I’m not sure vecinos is the right word for these caregivers. They seem more like ángeles to me.
Vecinos_Van

Text and photos by Michael Durbin

Cultivating farmworker advocates, one student at a time

saflogoLike many farmworker advocates, Melinda Wiggins can rattle off a long list of injustices faced by the people who harvest America’s food — stagnant wages, unsafe working conditions, housing often unfit for human habitation, and one she finds particularly unconscionable: Many farmworkers aren’t allowed visitors in the camps where they live.

“I’ve had a grower tell me it’s just like his kids who want to have visitors,” she told me. “They need to ask him for permission. And I’m like, farmworkers are not your children! What are you saying? But the growers see their worker as a child. As property.”

Two decades of advocacy have not weakened Melinda’s incredulity, which fuels her work as Executive Director of Student Action with Farmworkers, a non-profit that sends college interns into migrant farmworker camps for a summer of healthcare, legal, and education outreach.

Last summer I followed a bunch of SAF interns — they call themselves safistas — around camps in North and South Carolina. I was so impressed it took all of a moment last week to decide to become a regular donor when Melinda put out the call. (They don’t ask for much: only $10 or more a month. Here’s where you can donate.)

Melinda was raised on her grandparents cotton farm near Phillipstown, Mississippi. Surrounded as a kid by farms and farming, it was only when she left that rural and isolated place that she saw a distressing side of agriculture.

In 1993 Melinda departed the Mississippi delta for divinity school at Duke University. There she applied for a stint with the newly formed Student Action with Farmworkers, a chance encounter that opened her eyes to the systemic injustice suffered by farmworkers. Realizing her true calling, Melinda gave up the ministry for a permanent job with SAF.

SAF is unique among organizations that help farmworkers. There is no permanent team of outreach workers. Instead, every summer they hand-pick twenty or so college students from schools across the United States. After a week of training they provide much needed services for ten weeks, then disperse for careers as varied as you can imagine.

By rebuilding their team each summer, SAF provides to the world a perennial crop of witnesses to the plight of farmworkers.

SAF has sent more than 700 college students into farmworker communities since its founding in 1992. That’s when it emerged from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, which had been incubating the concept behind SAF since the 1970s, and incorporated as an independent non-profit.

The Center for Documentary Studies, home of SAF
The Center for Documentary Studies, home of SAF

Safistas do more than provide services. Most produce documentaries about their experience, a nod to their origin in the Center for Documentary Studies, which still houses SAF in a converted 19th century mansion on Duke’s campus. Some stage theatrical productions modeled after the social protest works of playwright Luis Valdez. They all can contribute to a Tumblr blog, allowing anyone to follow their work in the camps.

When Melinda joined SAF, interns were mostly Duke students from privileged backgrounds. One grew up in a farmworking family. Now that ratio has nearly flipped, with a majority of Safistas having farmworking backgrounds. Many have worked the fields themselves, like Daniel Guzman who I wrote about here a few weeks back.

Safistas from farmworker households often arrive with a sense of shame. They know what it’s like to miss school, to miss meals, and to be called out by other kids for working in the fields—harvesting potatoes is not likely to make a kid popular at school. But after ten weeks of sharing their stories with eager listeners, of indeed being honored, they can take away from SAF something far too few farmworkers are allowed: a sense of pride.

All Safistas leave with a new sense of perspective on the plight of farmworkers. “We contextualize it,” Melinda explains. “We talk about the history of agriculture, and how this is happening all over the country.”

Melinda and the other SAF leaders do more than bombard the students with how bad things are for farmworkers. The shock and outrage is inevitable. But by discovering and commiserating and brainstorming as a team, they get a collective sense that they can do something about it.

“Most people who learn about farmworker issues don’t know what to do,” Melinda tells me. “But Safistas leave here knowing something can be done. And what their role might be.”

Melinda may have given up a career in ministry when she took a job with SAF, but I don’t think she strayed too far from whatever drew her to divinity school in the first place. She runs an organization dedicated to helping the poorest of the working poor, and to opening the eyes of young people at the cusps of their careers so they might spread the word wherever they go.

That sounds plenty divine to me.


Melinda Wiggins with 2013 Safistas at a midsummer retreat at Wake Forest University
Melinda Wiggins advising 2013 Safistas at a midsummer retreat at Wake Forest University


P.S. Next Saturday I’ll join the 2014 Safistas as they celebrate the end of summer at a public event at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham. This should be a great event where we can watch the documentaries, enjoy great food, and meet SAF students and staff. Here’s a link to more information.

Land of the free? Not for U.S. farmworkers according to visiting British MPs

FLOCmpforum1 Last night, a 13-year old farmworker spoke to the panel from experience: She’s been working in the fields of North Carolina since the age of 7. Now she just wants to finish high school and go to college, but knows her parents can’t afford it.

Another farmworker held the microphone with his right hand because the index finger of his left was heavily bandaged. Last Monday, the end of that finger was cut off by a tobacco planting machine. He hasn’t worked since and doesn’t know how he’ll pay the hospital that reattached it.

Ian Lavery and Jim Sheridan, members of British Parliament, are in North Carolina to see firsthand what life is like for farmworkers in the U.S. Yesterday they toured fields and labor camps, spoke with a grower, and ended the day at a forum where more than 40 farmworkers shared their stories. They were accompanied by U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, and President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) Baldemar Velasquez.

FLOC invited the MPs to further the union’s campaign—so far unsuccessful—to hold R.J. Reynolds accountable for the welfare of the workers who grow their tobacco. They hope Mr. Lavery and Mr. Sheridan can pressure British American Tobacco, which owns 42 percent of R.J. Reynold’s parent company, to influence the tobacco giant. The forum was held at FLOC headquarters in Dudley, North Carolina, about an hour south of Raleigh.

FLOCmpforum2

Mr. Lavery is a former coal miner and Mr. Sheridan has worked in a shipyard. They know what hard labor is like. Still they were unprepared for what they saw, especially in the camps where farmworkers live, as compared to the U.K.

They were blunt in their assessment. “We wouldn’t put animals in the conditions they are living and working in,” said Mr. Sheridan.

Addressing the crowd about the fear many farmworkers have of speaking out, Mr. Sheridan made a point that is maybe lost on those who live in the United States.

“This is supposed to be the land of the free,” he said. “What we’ve discovered today is the contrary. People here are terrified to speak out—and that is no way to live.”

He went on to urge the media to look beyond the growers hiring the farmworkers, many of whom are sympathetic to their workers but “are pressured by those above to deliver the cheapest product possible.”

Standing after nearly two hours of listening to workers, each of whom thanked the MPs for listening to their stories, a visibly moved Ian Lavery shook a fist in the air and repeated that theme.

“It is always those at the bottom of the ladder who are attacked, time and time again, for the profits of the few.” The crowd roared in agreement.

“Your demands are meek,” he continued. “Decent safety and housing. Decent wages, terms and conditions. These are basic human rights!”

Their tour continues today and will be followed by a public forum this afternoon in Raleigh.

“In the U.K. we have a saying,” said Mr. Sheridan to visitors before the meeting. “There is such a thing as need and such a thing as greed. What we’ve seen here today is greed.”

FLOC president Baldemar Velasquez speaks from a panel listening to farmworkers, alongside British MP Jim Sheridan, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gabre, U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, and British MP Ian Lavery
FLOC president Baldemar Velasquez speaks from a panel listening to farmworkers, alongside British MP Jim Sheridan, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gabre, U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, and British MP Ian Lavery

Handcuffed in defense of farmworker rights

FLOCmailboxThe irate grower cut off conversation. “I’m giving you to the count of five to get off my property. Five, four, three…” Union organizer Raul Jimenez stood firm.

“Two! One!! Okay lock him up.” The sheriff snapped on the cuffs.

This is what I saw late last night at a farmworker labor camp outside Faison, North Carolina, about an hour south of Raleigh. I was there at the request of the Farmworker Labor Organizing Committee to observe their attempts to sign up members for their union.

The goal of FLOC is to offer the benefits of collective bargaining to migrant and seasonal farmworkers, a largely ignored population of laborers at the lowest rung of America’s economic ladder. Remarkably, they are excluded to this day from many job protections everyone else takes for granted—overtime rights, reasonable child labor laws, and more—of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Raul and I had been at the camp, a cinder-block barracks housing 28 men in the U.S. on H-2A visas, for more than an hour. Raul, a gentle-mannered former farmworker himself, with a sharp mind and abundant charisma, had been informing individuals and small groups of the benefits of joining the union to deal with poor living, working and wage conditions. The men received him with smiles and shared stories Raul could relate to.

The men told Raul of a wage offense they are experiencing right now: They are still awaiting reimbursement of $300 they paid to travel from Mexico to the farm. According to Raul the grower is required to make that reimbursement—a small fortune to a worker earning around $10,000 a year—during la primera semana. The first week. These men had been here more than two months. This is exactly the type of crime, Raul explained, a union can help prevent.

As an observer I was provided a letter from the North Carolina Attorney General’s office referenced by FLOC to justify their presence at farmworker camps. According to the letter, case law demonstrated the workers First Amendment rights to visitors, even on “company-owned” land, trumped the growers charge of trespassing.

Raul explained this justification many times to the grower, the sheriff, and the pair of encardados or supervisors. And of course Raul explained this to the men who sat in rapt attention, asking questions and confirming they wanted Raul to be there. “Tengo tu permiso ser aqui?” he asked a number of times. “Claro,” they answered.

With his hands cuffed behind his back, Raul asked me to get the car keys from his pocket so I could drive back to the FLOC office. As the sheriff helped fish out the keys, the red-faced grower interrupted.

“I’ll give you one last chance. Will you leave my property if he takes off those cuffs?”

Raul had to make a decision. “Can I have a second to think about it?”

“No!” said the grower.

“Okay I’ll leave,” answered Raul.

As we drove away I asked Raul what he was thinking. “I think the sheriff wasn’t too sure about all that,” he said with a wry smile. “He put on those cuffs pretty loose.”

Raul Jimenez, in red shirt, coordinating organizers at FLOC headquarters in Dudley, NC
Raul Jimenez, in red shirt, coordinating organizers at FLOC headquarters in Dudley, NC

500 miles from Immokalee

Danny Guzman

Danny should feel comfortable here and the tomato pickers should see him as one of their own. But he doesn’t, and they don’t.

Eighteen-year-old Daniel Guzman is in a labor camp in the South Carolina Lowcountry, some 500 miles away from Immokalee, Florida where he grew up in a farmworking family. He started picking tomatoes at age ten.

Danny knows what it’s like to faint from heat stroke, spilling your bucket of tomatoes as your body tumbles into the dirt and disappears between rows of pungent plants. He still has memories of speaking only Spanish, of missing meals, of watching his apologetic dad slice a Snickers bar into pieces so each of his kids might enjoy the rare treat.

But Danny found a way out of their world and into college. He’s here at this camp as an intern with the federally funded Migrant Education Program, being paid this summer not for his strong back but for his educated mind. This puts him on a higher plane than these campesinos and the awkwardness all but silences him.

Danny and two other interns, Julie King and Eric Britton, are here to lead an evening class in Ingles de Sobre Vivencia, Survival English, to a dozen or so farmworkers. Unlike Danny, Eric and Julie came from privileged childhoods. They grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. where they perfected Spanish at some of the best schools in the country.

SAF interns teaching English to migrant farmworkersThis camp, located about an hour east of Charleston, is one of hundreds hidden throughout the state. It consists of two long buildings that look like oversized storage sheds. One is for bunking the Mexican and Guatemalan migrants who pick tomatoes all day and sleep at night. The other is for those who sleep in the day and work through the night, washing and processing those tomatoes at a nearby packinghouse.

It’s hot here. The two women in the class took seats at the folding cafeteria tables promptly after finishing the dinner clean-up. Most of the men had to be enticed out of their bunks with the help of sweating bottles of water and cans of Coke so icy cold they sting your palm. They sit at the back of the room, quiet.

Nobody refuses a cold drink in this place. The tropical heat lingers well after the sun goes down, making everybody, and everything, sweat. Some of the white refrigerators lining the cinderblock walls have rusted entirely to orange.

Danny stands at the head of the class but off to the side as Julie and Eric teach. He fidgets, like he wants to get out of here, as his colleagues write essential phrases in Spanish and English.

Necessito agua → I need water.

Eric turns to Danny when a student uses a Spanish phrase he doesn’t recognize. Danny hesitates then steps to the front of the class. He translates and asks the woman a follow-up question. Her answer prompts Danny to ask another question, and then another and another.

“She knows my Mom!”

The class comes to a halt, transformed, as Danny explains how the woman used to give his mother a ride to the tomato-packing house in Immokalee. He makes no attempt to hide his joy or get back to the lesson. When the woman stands and extends her arm across the table Danny runs around it, demanding a hug. “Dame un abrazo!!”

Even the taciturn men now grin in disbelief. They toss out names of others in the camp who are from Immokalee and might know Danny. They see him now in a different light. Danny too is transformed.

The topic of class now is medical symptoms and Danny is no longer off to the side. The marker is in his hand now, writing the word “dizzy” on the board and breaking it into Spanish phonetics. When the subject turns to how to talking with a doctor, Danny draws on personal experience with Mexican folk-remedies and warns the students emphatically, as if speaking to someone in his own family, to tell the doctor everything they might be taking.

“Dígale al doctor todo lo que toma. Las hierbas. Los tés. Todo!”

The class ends with students completing paper exercises. Danny strolls from table to table, offering help, then exchanging small talk as the workers head back to their bunks.
Muchas gracias por venir, he says. Thank you for coming. They thank him back.

The gratitude is clearly mutual.

2013-07-03 19.17.02

It ain’t just tobacco

Photo by Heather Anderson
Photo by Heather Anderson

Thanks to a recent feature on The Daily Show and a slew of media attention (links below) a lot more people are now aware of the problem of children working in U.S. tobacco fields. This attention is a very good thing, but the problem goes way beyond tobacco: There are kids — mostly Latino, mostly dirt poor — harvesting crops of all kinds across America.

The Human Rights Watch report that ignited this attention is but one of numerous accounts of child labor in agriculture and was based on interviews with just 133 kids. Some estimate there are more than 400,000 children, maybe more than 700,000, working on U.S. farms.

The general public may not know about these kids but plenty of insiders do. The photos accompanying this post are from the 2009 Children in the Fields project by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. It drew the same conclusions as the Human Rights Watch study and was not limited to tobacco. Melissa Bailey of NC Field, a non-profit based in Kinston, North Carolina, also sees kids at work all the time. And she doesn’t have to go far. “Last season I stopped counting after visiting 100 children in nearby fields.”

Child labor anywhere is wrong. Child labor in U.S. agriculture is unconscionable for any number of reasons. First is the simple fact agriculture is among the most dangerous occupations for workers of any age.

Accidents with farm machinery can maim a child in an instant; heat stress can (and does) kill; and exposure to toxic pesticides is especially hard on kids. Their bodies aren’t done growing so development is impaired, and their smaller body mass makes the same dose of pesticides more harmful to them than to an adult-sized body.

A decent education is a pipe dream for many farmworking kids. As migrants they hopscotch from one school to another as a matter of course. And they miss a lot. Around half drop out before college, sucked for life into the vortex of poverty.

Photo by Heather Anderson
Photo by Heather Anderson

How can this be?

Child labor laws were part of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Institutional racism still permeated U.S. law back then so jobs held by blacks, such as crop work, were easily excluded. It didn’t help that the agricultural economics formed in the days of slavery still depended on cheap labor. In fact it still does. And while African Americans no longer hold most farmworking jobs, another minority has taken their place. Something like 80% of all crop workers in America are Hispanic. And more than half live below the poverty line.

Farmworking children belong to a minority class and they are very poor. That, it appears, is why 2014 is so much like 1914 for so many kids.

If they must work it would be nice if farmworking kids could at least count on the minimum hourly wage of $7.25. But legally they can be paid $3 less than everyone else. This is from the Department of Labor web site:

“Employees under 20 years of age may be paid $4.25 per hour during their first consecutive 90 calendar days of employment.”

These agriculture exemptions have been around a long time. And today, the agribusiness lobby uses switchblade politics—brilliantly—to keep these out-dated laws firmly in place.

In 2011 the Obama administration tried to make a change. A small change. They attempted to limit the type of hazardous work the youngest kids could perform in agriculture. They proposed to simply apply the same rules to agriculture that apply to, say, steel-working.

The effort was met by a campaign of blatant disinformation, such as Sarah Palin claiming the law would prevent young people from working on family farms. That simply wasn’t true. When industry-backed Republicans threatened to defund the Department of Labor, the president turned tail not just for the day but for all of his days. The language from the DOL could not have left Obama supporters more slack-jawed:

“… this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”

So much for Hope.

Americans are led to think of their country as the international gold standard for human rights. In many areas we are. But how can we let little kids work in tobacco fields when countries like Russia, Kazakhstan and India ban it? Maybe some global shaming will do us some good.

History gives me hope. It took a half century of serious effort to enact any child labor laws at all in this country, and more than a century just to abolish slavery. These things take time. And time has a way of making things right. I’ve always liked how Martin Luther King, Jr. put it:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”.

It can’t bend soon enough for the kids in our fields.


For more on this topic…

MADE IN THE USA: Child Labor & Tobacco
Human Rights Watch

Nicoteens
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Why Are Children Working in American Tobacco Fields?
by Gabriel Thompson
The Nation

The Harvest / La Cocheca
The Story of the Children Who Feed America

Child Labor in North Carolina Tobacco Fields
WUNC Radio, The State of Things

Children Don’t Belong in Tobacco Fields
New York Times

Children At Work
A Glimpse into the lives of child farmworkers in the United States
Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs

Considering the farmworker

ChipsOnBucketGiven how corporatized, mechanized and super-sized American food production has become, I wonder how many people know that the harvesting of fruits and vegetables is still done mostly by hand. It is.

Much of what you see in the produce aisle was picked by migrant farmworkers. These men, women and children live their lives on the move, going wherever the crops are, laboring out of public view to earn poverty level wages.

Many of the growers who hire farmworkers would pay better wages if they could. But they can’t. The American produce farmer is at the mercy of a handful of massive grocery chains with the power to all-but dictate prices. And further up the supply chain is, well, me. And you. Who doesn’t prefer lower prices for produce?

I’ve known a little about farmworkers since the early 1970s when my parents stopped buying lettuce until farmworkers got a raise. This was when Cesar Chavez was doing his thing, and I remember it striking a nerve, the apparent injustice of it all. It’s been in the back of my mind ever since. Now it’s back in front as I learn how little has changed in four decades.

There are just over a million farmworkers in America. Or maybe 3 million. Nobody seems sure but the lowest count I’ve seen is a million so let’s go with that. At least half are undocumented and most are foreign-born, from Mexico and Central America.

Farmworkers earn around $11,000 a year. The current poverty threshold is around $12,000. The so-called piece rate—what a farmworker earns per bucket of crops—hasn’t increased in many cases for decades. It hovers around 50 cents.

Some farmworker housing is unsafe, unclean, and unfit for human habitation. Not all migrant labor camps are like this, but one hovel off the highway is too many.

This one confounds me the most: Farmworkers are excluded from many of the laws put in place with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. That’s no typo. The president who signed it into law was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

No farmworker is entitled to overtime pay and some can be paid less than minimum wage. And there are special child labor laws for farmworkers. In every other industry the minimum age for employment is 14. Farmworking children can be as young as 12. Here in North Carolina they can work legally at age 10.

Farmworkers are subject to work hazards you won’t find elsewhere. Green Tobacco Sickness is one of the worst, in which rubbing against wet tobacco leaves for a day can put as much nicotine into your system as smoking multiple packs of cigarettes. Heat stress is a killer. And God only knows the long-term effect of pesticides farmworkers are exposed to.

And of course, as most farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, they suffer the same indignities as their peers in any industry: Fear of deportation, paying taxes they’ll never benefit from, and so on.

I have much more to learn. I don’t know how widespread these conditions are, nor all the reasons why farm labor conditions are so different from every other trade in America. But I intend to find out.

A million workers in the United States, subject to different laws, living and working in unsafe conditions.

That’s a lot to consider.

ClotheslineAndBucket
Clothes drying next to a harvesting bucket at a migrant farmworker camp in North Carolina. Above: Plastic chips collected harvesting sweet peppers, one per bucket, each worth 42 cents, wait to be tallied at the end of a farmworker’s day.

Text and photos by Michael Durbin