Fifteen farm workers have won back their right to work after being fired last week for fleeing wildfire smoke.
The workers, who pick strawberries for Crisalida Farms in Oxnard, California, were warned by their foreman that they’d lose their jobs if they left. But the raining ash and blowing smoke caused by the fast-burning wildfires proved too much to bear. As one worker told NBC’s southern California affiliate, “it was hard to breathe.”
Though none of the farm workers were part of a union, United Farm Workers stepped in to help with their case this week, stressing the idea that “No worker shall work under conditions where they feel his life or health is in danger.” Crisalida Farms has since agreed to give the workers their jobs back.
Like any huge agricultural economy, California’s farms employ significant numbers of low-wage migrant workers, not all of whom are in the country with proper documentation. Such workers usually lack bargaining power in negotiations, and it’s easy for farm owners to take advantage of those employees. A new set of bills in California aims to address this by creating punitive measures for farms that threaten to report workers to immigration authorities.
Dolores Huerta speaking at the 2009 National Conference on LGBT Equality.
At the Huffington Post, legendary civil rights and labor activist Dolores Huerta has quashed speculation that President Obama’s support for marriage equality will somehow alienate Latino voters. Instead, she says, the fight for immigrants’ rights and workers’ rights has helped many understand “the core American value of equality under the law”:
As a community that has fought and continues to fight against bigotry and discrimination , we understand how dangerous it is to pick and choose who deserve equality and respect. Those of us who have dedicated our lives to working for immigrants’ rights and workers’ rights understand the core American value of equality under the law. A better country for immigrants is a better country for all. A better country for gays and lesbians is a better country for all. We’re all in this together. [...]
The gay rights movement is working for many of the same basic rights and dignities that those of us in the immigrants’ rights and labor movements have been fighting for decades: workplace rights, economic security, access to opportunity. The gay community has been a strong ally for us in the quest for public policy that treats all people with respect and dignity. We will continue to do the same for them.
Huerta also took time to recognize the important intersections between race, sexuality, and gender that are often ignored, noting, “There are just as many LGBT people in our communities as there are throughout the country. We too have gay and lesbian hermanos y hermanas, friends and children.”
The 82-year-old activist is best known for working with César Chávez to found what would become the United Farm Workers. She also originated the slogan “Sí se puede,” which Obama adapted as his campaign motto, “Yes We Can.”
By Andrea Nill Sanchez on Sep 24, 2010 at 11:36 am
Back in June, the United Farm Workers (UFW) launched their “Take Our Jobs” campaign which invites American citizens and legal residents to fill the farm jobs that are mostly occupied by undocumented labor. Comedian Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” traveled to a farm in upstate New York and spent ten hours “picking beans, packing corn and learning about the stark reality facing Americans farms and farmers.”
Today, Colbert testified before the House Judiciary subcommittee on his experience as an entertainer-turned-migrant worker. As part of his testimony, Colbert called for more visas for farmworkers
This brief experience gave me some small understanding of why so few Americans are clamoring to begin an exciting career as seasonal migrant field worker. So what’s the answer? I’m a free market guy. Normally I would leave this to the invisible hand of the market, but the invisible hand of the market has already moved over 84,000 acres of production and over 22,000 farm jobs over to Mexico and shut down over a million acres of U.S. farm land due to lack of available labor because apparently even the invisible hand doesn’t want to pick beans. [...]
Maybe we could give more visas to the immigrants, who — let’s face it — will probably be doing these jobs anyway. And this improved legal status might allow legal immigrants recourse if they’re abused. And it justs stands to reason to me if your coworker can’t be exploited, then you’re less likely to be exploited yourself. And that itself might improve pay and working conditions on these farms and eventually Americans may consider taking these jobs again.
Or maybe that’s crazy. Maybe the easier answer is just to have scientists develop vegetables that pick themselves.
Agriculture is ranked amongst the three most hazardous occupations in the nation. For every 100,000 agricultural workers in the U.S. in 2007, there were 25.7 occupational deaths. That’s because farmworkers are exposed to toxic pesticides, work under the hot sun for 10-12 hours a day, handle hazardous tools and machinery, and live in crowded conditions with poor sanitation. In return, most farmworkers earn approximately $28,040 a year.
The solution to improving farm jobs is two-fold: fixing the immigration system as Colbert mentioned and also improving wages and working conditions in the agricultural sector. Yet, as long as most farmworkers feel that they can’t report abuses and fight for their rights without fear of deportation or retaliation agricultural work will remain a grueling, dangerous, and thankless career that most Americans have no interest in pursuing. As Colbert briefly noted, if the U.S. doesn’t find a way to legalize immigrant agricultural workers, businesses will continue moving their operations to other countries where they can find laborers.
Contrary to what Swain and other immigration hawks suggest, despite a major recession, most farmers and ranchers are still struggling to find the workers they need. “Comprehensive immigration reform is needed, so that America’s farmers and ranchers can continue to produce an abundant supply of safe, healthy food, as well as renewable fuels and fiber for our nation,” writes Ron Gaskill, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation
Initially, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) asked Colbert to leave the room without delivering his testimony. However, Conyers indicated he changed his mind after hearing the testimony of Dr. Carol M. Swain who denied that there is a shortage of agricultural workers and called it “a manufactured crisis.”
On a more serious note, when asked why he was advocating for migrant workers, Colbert responded: “I like talking about people who don’t have any power and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights as a result. But yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. [...] Migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”
One of the most widely repeated claims against enacting immigration reform is the argument that immigrants take jobs from American workers. Today, in response, the United Farm Workers (UFW) launched a new “Take Our Jobs” campaign. The UFW is inviting American citizens and legal residents to fill the farm jobs that are mostly occupied by undocumented labor:
In a letter to U.S. lawmakers, UFW offers farm workers who are “ready to train citizens and legal residents who wish to replace immigrants in the fields,” and encourages Members of Congress to refer their constituents to vacant farm worker positions. UFW has locations across the country where Members of Congress can direct their constituents willing to do work on large-scale farms. Employers will be on hand at each site to answer questions, meet prospective employees and assist in the application process. All who are interested or unemployed and are legal residents or U.S. citizens are encouraged to apply.
In reality, the UFW knows that response to the program will likely be low. Agriculture is ranked amongst the three most hazardous occupations in the nation. For every 100,000 agricultural workers in the U.S. in 2007, there were 25.7 occupational deaths. That’s because farm workers are exposed to toxic pesticides, work under the hot sun for 10-12 hours a day, handle hazardous tools and machinery, and live in crowded condition with poor sanitation. In return, most farm workers earn approximately $28,040 a year.
Contrary to what the anti-immigrant right might suggest, despite a major recession, most farmers and ranchers are still struggling to find the workers they need. “Comprehensive immigration reform is needed, so that America’s farmers and ranchers can continue to produce an abundant supply of safe, healthy food, as well as renewable fuels and fiber for our nation,” writes Ron Gaskill, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. The truth is if the U.S. doesn’t find a way to legalize immigrant agricultural workers, businesses will move their operations to other countries where they can find laborers. U.S. direct investment in Mexican agriculture has already increased sevenfold between 2000 and 2008.
Ultimately, the solution is two fold: fixing the immigration system and improving wages and working conditions in the agricultural sector. However, until farm workers feel that they can report abuses and fight for their rights without fear of deportation or retaliation, agricultural work will continue to be a dangerous, thankless job that most Americans don’t want to do.