* The Secret Lives of America’s Migrant Farmers

ClotheslineAndBucket_miniIt’s early June at Camp Chestnut Ridge in Efland, North Carolina. Towering pines outside the dining hall are still dripping after a night of hard rain. I take a seat at a breakfast table where most of the college students are quiet, still shaking off sleep. But one of them is bright-eyed.
“What brings you here?” Eric Britton asks me.
I explain I’m researching a story about Student Action with Farmworkers, the non-profit that assembled these thirty students from schools across the country.
SAF has sent more than 700 college students — they call themselves Safistas — into migrant farmworker camps. The interns are here for a week of orientation about the estimated one million, mostly undocumented farmworkers in the U.S.
Not all of what they learn comes from SAF instructors, and not all of it is about farmworking.
Eric turns to another Safista at the table. “Are there any good bars in Columbia?” read more at narrative.ly

Father Tony

FrT_HandsClaspedHe’s collected a small mountain of donated toothbrushes and T-shirts but what he really needs are pants: About four thousand pair.

Father Jesus Antonio Rojas, known by all as Father Tony, runs the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Dunn, North Carolina. From an airy facility about an hour south of Raleigh, he and a small staff provide a long list of services to nearly 4,000 migrant farmworkers who live in temporary labor camps off the highway, all but invisible to passersby.

UNC students fill bags
UNC students fill bags

Last week my daughter Greta and I helped fill 400 grocery bags with those shirts and toothbrushes, alongside visiting college students from UNC and Duke.

Father Tony knows workers who miss a day of work waiting for their only pair of pants to dry on a clothesline. And waiting for the weekend doesn’t help when you work seven days a week. He prays now for a pants donor, so he can give an extra pair to every worker.

Our bag-stuffing was guided by Lucia, Father Tony’s wife and navigator of the white van that later hauled those bags to four camps. We followed, caravan style.

The sun sets over the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Dunn, NC as volunteers prepare to deliver supplies to migrant farmworker camps
The sun sets over the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Dunn, NC as volunteers prepare to deliver supplies to migrant farmworker camps

“Muchachos! Muchachos!” Father Tony yelled from an open window as he rolled the van to a stop, beeping the horn. Soon he was introducing us to the workers and guiding the distribution of goods.

A typical farmworker bedroom
A typical farmworker bedroom
We couldn’t help notice the squalid conditions. Kitchens were filthy. Rows of toilets lacked stalls. At one camp, a foul-smelling dumpster sat just outside the open windows of the rooms where men have to sleep.

There are thought to be at least 100,000 migrant farmworkers in North Carolina. Nationwide there are more than a million, many living in conditions barely suitable for animals.

Father Tony doesn’t blame the farm operators, known as growers, who hire and house these men, women and, sometimes, children. He tells me how busy they are “with so many, many problems” to worry about. “They try to give workers the best they can.”

Father Tony helps a Duke student distribute clothing at a camp
Father Tony helps a Duke student distribute clothing at a camp

Clearly some growers try harder than others, but he’s wise in not pointing fingers at the growers. This is a system problem. Even we the people who enjoy the sweet potatoes and everything else provided by these men and women working for low pay and living in squalor share responsibility. We are part of the problem.

But we are also the solution. That’s the message I get from listening to Father Tony and watching him work, that we all have the capacity to help improve the lives of farmworkers, the poorest of America’s working poor, to whom he has devoted his life’s work.

Father Tony briefing farmworkers on pending immigration reform in the summer of 2013
Father Tony briefing farmworkers on pending immigration reform in the summer of 2013

“Farmworkers are a miracle,” Father Tony told me on an earlier visit. “A gift from God. Without them we have no life.”

I asked Father Tony what he wants most for the farmworkers—beyond a few thousand pair of sturdy pants. His answer? Recognition. Simple awareness of their existence by people like you and me.

“These are the most important people in the world,” he tells me, emphasizing words as if he can’t understand why this is obvious only to him.

“They feed us,” he continues. “And they are so near us. But people don’t know.”

Father Tony knows he can’t do much about that part of the problem. But he knows what part he can address. He knows where the camps are and what the farmworkers need, and he does an amazing job at getting it to them.

But he can sure use those pants.

FrT_AtCampWalking

Photos by Michael Durbin

Considering the farmworker: What I’ve learned

I’m a Wall Street technology manager. Two years ago I set out, citizen journalist style, to learn and write about people whose lives are very different from mine: migrant farmworkers. These are the men, women and children who harvest most of the fresh produce you see at America’s grocery stores.

I’ll share what I learned with the caveat I am but one observer who learned much of this secondhand, from farmworker advocates, social workers and others. My Spanish isn’t good enough to converse at length with farmworkers, though I did speak with a few and visited forty or so labor camps. I’ve not spoken with a single farm owner, or grower, who hires these workers. And though I’ve read nearly all the articles and books I can get my hands on I’ve certainly not read everything. So with that out of the way, here’s what I believe to be true.

There are around a million farmworkers in the United States, give or take a hundred thousand. Most are from Mexico or Nicaragua. Desperate for work, most risked their lives crossing into the United States. Many still refer to such immigrants as “illegal” but I’m with those who prefer “undocumented.” How can a human life be against the law?

Most farmworkers are truly migrant, moving from one corner of the country to another, following the work and living in temporary labor camps. Some workers stay put year-round. These are known as seasonal farmworkers and they tend to find non-agricultural work in the winter.

Most camps I’ve been to are sad places: filthy and ill-maintained, some with outhouses and water unsafe to drink. Don’t expect to see one yourself. Most are well out of the view of any highway, hidden beyond trees or down long dirt roads.

Farmworkers are paid very little, sometimes less than minimum wage, because someone desperate for work and ever fearful of deportation is easily exploited in this way. Some are hired directly by a grower but many are hired by contratistas or nickeleros who shield growers from direct responsibility for their workers. Some of these middlemen, if stories I’ve heard are true, are unspeakably cruel.

The paltry pay, by and large, is not due to unkind growers or contractors. It’s a system thing. U.S. growers must accept crop prices dictated by massive grocery chains and fast food buyers. These oligopolists will of course point the finger of blame at you and me: consumers who will almost always prefer the tomato or hamburger with the lowest price. And they are right.

Farmworkers on H2A temporary work visas, sometimes called guest workers, earn an hourly wage set by law, ranging from $10.00 to $13.59 depending on the state. They tend to live in nicer quarters as well. Still the program has plenty of critics. Growers think it’s overly bureaucratic. And labor advocates don’t like how guest workers are forced to remain with one employer, incenting abuse.

Naturally, most farmworkers stay mum about their job conditions no matter how bad. One exception is the man I heard last summer as he stood in front of two visiting Members of British Parliament and a U.S. Congresswoman. He told of standing atop a mobile tobacco harvester, dizzy from nearby pesticide spray. Miscalculating his reach, his hand went under the belt and into the gear mechanism. It chopped off his fingertip like a cigar cutter. It was hours before he made it to the hospital—the grower refused to take him—where he racked up a bill he couldn’t pay. Because he was fired.

Migrant farmwork is not slavery and farmworkers are not slaves. Still, as I consider all this, I can’t help but hear echoes of slavery, especially in the South where the economic reliance on ultra-cheap labor was ingrained back when slaves really did all this work. Consider the agricultural exemptions to federal labor laws.

Did you know farmworkers are not entitled to overtime pay? That there are different child labor laws for farmworkers? Kids as young as 12, in some cases 10, can work legally in the fields, subject to heat stroke, pesticide exposure and a long list of other health and safety risks. And when school is out children can work around the clock without breaking any laws.

The exemptions have been around since 1938. That’s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to include them in the Fair Labor Standards Act to appease the South. Slavery had been abolished decades earlier but practices like debt peonage and share-cropping kept farmworker wages ultralow. The South liked it that way. It still does.

My lesson in migrant farmwork makes me think of Martin Luther King’s observation about the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. The occupational discrimination against farmworkers in America is clearly unjust.

I know better than to expect sweeping changes any time soon. Republicans now control most state governments in the South, and both houses of Congress in Washington, and it’s usually the other party who makes things right for the working class in this country. Raising the federal minimum wage remains a pipe dream, as does immigration reform.

What to do with this knowledge? I don’t know. I keep thinking of that arc of history. I truly believe it does bend toward justice. But it is, indeed, long.

A farmworker relaxing on his tractor at sunset
Photos by Michael Durbin

Revisiting a Classic

DanielsOnMapWhat very good luck.

On our way to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where my extended family would soon convene for Thanksgiving, we’d go by place I had wanted to visit for years: Daniels Seafood and Crab House.

It was the setting of a 1999 feature story about migrant agricultural workers, by Anne Hull, then at the St. Petersburg Times and now at the Washington Post.

Una Vida Mejor: A Better Life tells the story of a group of Mexican women who travel more than 2,000 miles to pick crabs as guest-workers, on H2A visas.

Like all great narrative journalism, the three-part story uses just the right detail to put you where the subjects are, from a Mexican town square:

… the evening game of soccer was played with a deflated old ball… the field was a swirl of white powder, and the shirtless young men looked as if they had been rolled in flour.

to the crab shack where the women worked, standing all day:

… hundreds of cooked crabs were heaped on silver tables, waiting for them. The clock above the sink read 6:45 a.m. Delia and Ceci stood on the concrete floor, blinking against the fluorescent lights.

to the camp where they slept:

… a wall-unit air conditioner pumped against the summer heat. One windowless bedroom occupied by a worker named Esmerelda became known as El Horno de Esme. Esmerelda’s oven.

Its careful revelation of what’s at stake for its subjects makes you care what happens next. And when its main characters change, learning something unexpected, we learn something too.

As we drove east in the waning months of the Carolina growing season, past denuded tobacco fields and roadside bales of cotton the size of a school bus, I told my teenager Greta all about the article and how cool it would be to meet Mickey Daniels and some of his H2A workers.

“Can we eat lunch there?” she asked.
“I don’t think it’s a restaurant,” I explained. “But we’ll see.”

I had wondered of course if the crab house was still there. But there was a more recent article about Daniels on line, and even a customer review by a guy named Brett: “Some of the best crab meat you are going to find on the beach.”

The H2A guest-worker program has expanded steadily over the past decade with more than 85,000 workers authorized in 2012 – nearly twice as many as when Anne Hull wrote her story.

Despite complaints of too much red tape for growers and too few rights for the workers, the program does let Mexican laborers earn an hourly wage in North Carolina of $10.32 (it varies by state), more than what they can earn in a day back home.

“Dad,” said Greta, as Google told us we had arrived, “this looks like a condo.”

It did. I turned the car around, heading west now on the causeway connecting the Outer Banks to the mainland.

“We must have missed it,” I said. “Look for an old building with a blue crab painted on the roof.”
“Like that one?” said Greta, pointing to a squat gray building on the edge of the water, clearly abandoned.
“That can’t be it,” I assured her.

We continued west, nearly to the mainland, with no sign of it. Greta was right. I headed back east and pulled off at what was once Daniels Seafood and Crab House and now an empty shack waiting for a bulldozer, bathed in bright sunlight.

DanielsExterior

Tall weeds swayed in the cool wind blowing off the water. I peered through dirty windows onto sun-bleached floors, littered with debris. It was eerily quiet, save when a car zoomed by.

“The door’s missing over here,” noticed Greta. “You can see right in.”

You could, and I did, to peer at artifacts from the story: The giant steamer. The concrete floor. The fluorescent lights that once made Delia and Ceci blink their bleary eyes.

DanielsInterior

So much for meeting Mickey Daniels, or his H2A workers.

But of course I don’t need to. Thousands will be all over North Carolina, starting in just a few months, and I can meet plenty then.

And there’s always Ann Hull’s story, a click away.

Una Vida Mejor: A Better Life
They are human capital, ordered like product and shipped in for a season. A handful of women from a windblown village in Mexico set out for a better life – una vida mejor -on the back roads of the new world economy.

Story by ANNE HULL • Photographs by JOSHUA DAUTOFF and PAM ROYAL

Part one: Leaving Palomas
Part two: The Smell of Money
Part three: Freedom Found

© Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

The Nice Camp

VolleyballAtNiceCampLast summer I accompanied some college students doing educational and health care outreach at migrant farmworker camps. They were generally dismal places, ill-maintained and no place I’d ever want to spend the night.

Except for one.

It was mid July. Hot. I’d been traveling all day with Julie King and Danny Guzman-Ramos, interns with Student Action with Farmworkers, trying to register young workers for ESL classes. After several hours of hopscotching the South Carolina blacktop they had managed to register a grand total of one, living in a trailer with failing siding and a yard littered with garbage. This was a familiar site.

The front porch of another camp was strewn with beer cans, dirty laundry, and filth. At another place, a courteous but uninterested farmworking mom spoke to Danny through a screen door with holes big enough for birds to get through. On other days I had seen much worse.

Fatigued and growing miserable in the heat, Danny and Julie decided to ditch the rest of their leads. They would go instead to a peach grower’s camp where they had already registered the workers for classes, this time to conduct an interview for a documentary project.

The decision changed everything. For the first time that day they seemed genuinely excited and I soon found out why.

We rolled to a stop at the end of a long gravel road, the last few pebbles crunching under our wheels. The expanse of grass surrounding the squat white building was the first I’d seen that qualified as an actual lawn. It wasn’t fancy but had clearly been mowed. And there wasn’t a spec of litter in sight.

Danny and Julie were met by a pair of men with smiles that wrapped their weather-worn faces. I couldn’t follow the rapid Spanish but the body language was clear: These people were happy to see one another.

While Danny went inside to recruit someone to interview, Julie headed to the volleyball net. Volleyball? Soon she was punching the ball to a guy on the other side, who lost sight of it in the glare of a setting sun now falling toward peach trees surrounding the camp. He laughed.

I saw things here I hadn’t seen at other camps: A pair of clean washing machines on a covered porch—they looked new. Rows of clothes lines, draped with shirts and pants, were rocked in unison by a warm breeze coming off the orchard. One worker sat on a tractor, watching the orange sun now kissing the tops of the peach trees, enjoying the simple passage of time in a gorgeous setting.

Interview_miniThe interview went off without a hitch and was followed by friendly banter inside a screened-in porch where I took in the surroundings: Clean tables. A swept floor. A bright clean kitchen with a professional stove—a Viking, the kind you see in restaurant kitchens.

Why was this camp for migrant farmworkers so nice when so many are such filthy hovels?

This was a camp for workers on H-2A guest worker visas. The government requires housing at these camps to meet certain standards. I’m told these standards are not always enforced, but here I imagine the grower was well in compliance and maybe then some (I doubt the program requires Viking stoves and volleyball nets).

The H-2A program is not without controversy. Detractors say it doesn’t address the much bigger problem of poor living and working conditions for undocumented workers (only 10% or so of migrant workers are here on H-2As) and even its proponents decry the H-2A bureaucratic complexities. I’m still learning about the program and don’t have a strong opinion.

I just wish every migrant farmworker in America could come off the fields at the end of a day to a place like this.

cropped-sunsettractorman.jpg
A version of this essay appeared on the Farmworker Advocacy Network blog on July 12, 2014

The lives of child farmworkers in their own pictures and words

FromOurHandsCUEach year, a little-known contest by a little-known agency in Washington, DC lets children of migrant farmworkers portray their lives in essays and drawings.

The annual contest by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs invites these children to submit essays and artwork for judging by a panel, with winners announced on the AFOP website and honored at the association’s annual conference. This year it was in San Diego. AFOP spokesperson Norma Flores described the experience:

“I could see the spark in their eyes as they received their awards at the conference.” As a former farmworker herself, she can relate to the importance of such recognition.

“It really does leave an impression, for them to know someone believes in them, which makes such a difference in their lives.”

It’s too bad the contest doesn’t reach more kids. Apparently only a few hundred or so of the 400 to 500 thousand migrant farmworking children even know about it.

Here’s hoping that changes.

Working in the fields is all we know, it’s all we think we’re good at, it’s what we do to survive… Falling behind in my studies is the main problem that I face every time I move from state to state… during my freshmen year I attended four high schools.

Zulema Lopez, 17 Laredo, TX

I feel as if I am going to faint but I know I can’t stop working… Sometimes I want to scream at the top of my lungs because the next day will be just the same. I hate the fact that no one thinks we can be anything but migrant workers

Veronica Rodriguez, age 15, Michigan

Jaqueline Vargas, 14, San Luis, AZ
Jaqueline Vargas, 14, San Luis, AZ
Javier Alejandro Soto-Gonzalez, 16, Bakersfield, CA
Javier Alejandro Soto-Gonzalez, 16, Bakersfield, CA
Jose Luis Mendoza, 12, Salinas, CA
Jose Luis Mendoza, 12, Salinas, CA

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