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

FLOCmpforum1

From my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore…

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

FLOCmailboxFrom my 2014 blog The Considerate Omivore…

The 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

From my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore

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.

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It ain’t just tobacco

Photo by Heather Anderson
Photo by Heather Anderson

From my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore…

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

ChipsOnBucketFrom my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore

Given 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

A Call of the Wild Ends Too Soon

woodsThe Chapel Hill News and Raleigh News & Observer, March 8, 2009…

The reports a while back of an improbable cougar sighting in Chapel Hill reminded me of my own series of backyard encounters with a feral feline. Four years ago my family moved here from Chicago into the Oaks Villas, a tidy subdivision alongside the waterfowl impoundment on the eastern edge of town. The swampy and heavily wooded land surrounding our neighborhood is home to all sorts of wildlife that urbanites like us rarely see: frogs, snakes, hawks, owls. And of course there are plenty of deer, whose numbers swell each year until the hunters arrive.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about hunting. Sometimes I wonder if it is just a vestigial and violent human instinct we could now do without. But I also realize the crucial role hunters play in maintaining balance in the modern ecosystem, one in which natural predators of animals such as deer are all but gone. In any event, it did take me some getting used to living so close to a game land. When a quiet breakfast is interrupted by the sound of gunshots, part of me still wants to drop to the floor and call 911.

One evening we heard something even more alarming than gunfire. It was the piercing wail of some animal crying out—screaming actually—coming from just inside the woods. Our cavalier spaniel Raleigh went absolutely berserk, lunging so hard at the windows I thought he just might crash through. Stepping tentatively onto the back porch, we tried to figure out what in the world could be wailing like this. We didn’t go dare go outside during the couple of minutes it continued, at least not that first night.

The next night we heard it again, just after sunset. This time it lasted several minutes longer and I went out for a look. Directing a flashlight at the source of the cry, I saw a stout furry animal about a foot and a half long, with the pointy ears of a cat but no sign of a tail. It hissed at the beam of light, absolutely fearless, which is more than I could say for myself. I snapped off the flashlight and danced my way back up the stairs and into the house, where a quick bit of Googling told us we had a bobcat.

A bobcat! My wife and two kids feared for little Raleigh, but I just thought it was the coolest thing yet about living in Chapel Hill. It appears the cat was just doing what bobcats do, patrolling the perimeter of its home. Some weeks we’d hear the cat two or three nights in a row. Other times nearly a week would go by between visits.

The cat always came at night, until one morning about six or eight weeks after the first encounter. I was sitting at my computer beside an open window just after sunrise when I heard the bobcat, this time a ways off in the distance. It was the same sound as always, which was no longer jarring but oddly comforting. I suppose it had simply become one of the sounds of home. In any event it put a smile on my face as I stepped close to the window for a listen. That’s when I heard the gunshot. Just a single round, its sound echoing off the trees, followed by silence. A very long silence.

I waited several days before telling my family. Every evening I’d listen for the cat, hoping beyond hope that the gunshot and silencing of the cat was just coincidental timing. But never again did I hear the unmistakable sound of our bobcat. We do still hear the remarkable bard owls, which sound like squawking monkeys when they get riled up in their mating ritual. Every spring the ensemble of chorus frogs gets to singing so loud you can hardly talk over it. And Raleigh even managed one afternoon to get too close to a copperhead, which gave him a nice fat lip and valuable life lesson.

It is all still quite beautiful here. It was more beautiful when there was a bobcat out there, but still I count my blessings for getting to live where we do.