Justice for Farmworkers – Thanksgiving

Photo by Peter Eversoll


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Overview – Justice for Farmworkers

Focus Text: Psalm 126

“May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”

Scripture Commentary by Melinda Wiggins, Executive Director, Student Action with Farmworkers, Durham

This bittersweet celebration present in the Beatitudes and in Psalm 126 seems to be speaking of the joy that comes through political conflict and the struggle for social and economic justice in a way that harkens the voice of the prophets. While there is some relief from oppression, there is also work to be done and more hardships to suffer. But because the people who are “sowing seeds” of justice have been oppressed, their journey will be full of advent.

Pastoral Reflection by Melinda Wiggins

As many liberation theologians point out, those who are oppressed are the most aware of the causes of their oppression and poised to seek justice. Because of their marginalization, farm workers advocate and organize for freedom from slavery, oppression and death. The liberation that farm workers seek is not only for corporal life, but is spiritual freedom as well.

Personal Vignette – Voices of Farmworkers

“We were all shaking because it was so hot, almost dehydrated. You know what I did? I left them…It was less than an hour before finishing, and I thought for $6 I am not going to die here. I’m leaving. In the field, there were no shade trees. It is just a ditch full of weeds, but that’s where I stayed, and it didn’t matter if there were snakes or thorns. It didn’t matter…All I wanted was shade.”

Key Fact

Farmworkers play a vital role in cultivating the food we eat everyday, and North Carolina has one of the largest farmworker populations in the nation. Even though 85% of our fruits and vegetables are harvested by hand, farmworkers remain largely invisible.

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Focus Text – Psalm 126

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
Psalm 126

Additional Texts

They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD – and their descendants as well.
Isaiah 65:22-23

It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things.
II Timothy 2:6-7

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness…for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.
II Corinthians 9:10, 12

I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. I will provide for them splendid vegetation, so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. They shall know that I, the LORD their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord GOD. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord GOD.
Ezekiel 34:25-31

Other Lectionary Texts

  • Joel 2:21-27
  • Matthew 6:25-33
  • I Timothy 2:1-7
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Commentary on Psalm 126

Psalm 126 may be read as a familiar Psalter poem that reflects the human spirit, while at the same time referencing its specific post-exilic prophetic message of deliverance from oppression. Many often think of the book of Psalms as beautiful personal poetry that is imbedded with experiences and feelings that can be transferred to that of a nation and all of humanity.

Psalm 126 fulfills this expectation of personal and universal feelings as it speaks of joy, surprise, sadness and thankfulness. Psalm 126 is also an acknowledgement of the role that the righteous God has played in delivering the Hebrew people from slavery with the promise of a greater future. This chapter acknowledges that God has delivered the people of Israel from their oppressors and because of this the people are comforted. The delivered community of exile has been restored to health—to a life free of oppression—and therefore is full of joy.

The fourth verse, which requests full deliverance of God’s people, as streams overflowing in the desert, transitions the psalm from celebration to a hope only known to those who have lived through oppression. “The opposite of joy is not sadness, but suffering. It is not the superficial kind of rejoicing that springs from unawareness or resignation, but the joy born of the conviction that unjust mistreatment and suffering will be overcome.” (1)

In the last two verses, we are reminded that, as in agriculture, the deliverance from oppression will not be easy or come quickly, but is promised. These verses remind one of the Beatitudes, which also promise justice to the poor in spirit, mourners, meek, hungry, merciful, pure, peacemakers and those who are persecuted. As Evelyn Mattern stated in Blessed are You:

The hungry, the homeless, the impoverished, refugees, abused children, prisoners, addicts, elderly people discarded in nursing homes, victims of war: add them all together and you have a majority of the world’s population. This marginalized majority reflects many of the characteristics of the multitudes Jesus addressed [in the Sermon on the Mount]. Jesus does not promise an immediate, or eventual, paradise…those who have experienced the bliss of the beatitudes can affirm that it comes in the present, even in the midst of hardship and conflict (2).

This bittersweet celebration present in the Beatitudes and in Psalm 126 seems to be speaking of the joy that comes through political conflict and the struggle for social and economic justice in a way that harkens the voice of the prophets. While there is some relief from oppression, there is also work to be done and more hardships to suffer. But because the people who are “sowing seeds” of justice have been oppressed, their journey will be full of advent.

By Melinda Wiggins, Executive Director, Student Action with Farmworkers

Sources
1. 1. Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People (Maryknoll, 1992), 115.
2. Evelyn Mattern, Blessed Are You: The Beatitudes and Our Survival (Ave Maria Press: Notre Dame, 1970), 20-21.
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Pastoral Reflection on Psalm 126

One Sunday afternoon each fall at the crossroads of Highway 55 and Easy Street in Sampson County, North Carolina, thousands of campesinos, church members, families, student volunteers, and community members gather to celebrate the harvest and give thanks to farm workers for bringing food to our tables. People enjoy traditional Mexican foods such as tamales, taquitos and horchata, as well as the American favorites, hot dogs and hamburgers. Children play games, couples dance to la musica, and families walk around gathering informational pamphlets from service agency representatives. The celebration ends with the soccer trophy being awarded to the champion team.

Around dusk, old school buses and vans caravan workers from the festival back to their reality—overcrowded trailers and substandard farm houses with broken windows and sagging roofs; poverty wages where they are paid by the piece; 12-hour work days; and no overtime, holidays, sick days, workers’ compensation, health insurance, vacation or retirement. The reality of farm workers is inhuman. Most universally acknowledged standards of human rights, such as access to just and favorable conditions of work, fair wages, a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of one’s family, and decent housing and medical care, are denied to farm workers. Unfortunately, the American Dream that many exiled Latin American farm workers seek in the U.S. becomes a nightmare of discrimination and exploitation. Below is an excerpt from an interview with a farm worker in North Carolina who speaks to the disappointment often faced by immigrants who come to the U.S. searching for the American Dream.

One comes looking to make money. And this is a lie because one comes to suffer worse than in his own land…One leaves the family to suffer to come make money here in the United States and it is not true, how one imagines it will be… us immigrants, we are blamed for everything…Truthfully poverty exists [in Mexico], why should we tell you otherwise? Because if there were no poverty, we would not have to come (1).

During the annual Farm Worker Festival, there seems to be a communion of peoples without the usual borders erected by language, class, race, ethnicity or citizenship. For one day each year, there is mutual respect, appreciation, and thanksgiving for the primarily undocumented and working class Spanish-speakers who harvest our fruits and vegetables. The festival provides physical nourishment to the body accompanied by a rejoicing of the spirit. It is through these common experiences of sharing a meal, celebration, learning, and talking that we begin to encounter community. Unfortunately, this day doesn’t come too often and rarely translates to our everyday being. The daily separation that farm workers face from the larger “native” community leads to many health-related illnesses such as depression and alcoholism, and it further isolates this already exiled community. The effect on the “native” North Carolina community can be one of spiritual death, as lack of communion with those who are oppressed can leave one with no hope. This segregation of peoples is a symptom that the community as a whole is not well.

As many liberation theologians point out, those who are oppressed are the most aware of the causes of their oppression and poised to seek justice. Because of their marginalization, farm workers advocate and organize for freedom from slavery, oppression and death. The liberation that farm workers seek is not only for corporal life, but is spiritual freedom as well. Certainly physical death is one form of oppression that farm workers face. Two workers died in the fields of North Carolina in 2005 from heat stroke, hundreds of Latin Americans die annually crossing the U.S./Mexico border, and hundreds of thousands of farm laborers are poisoned with potentially deadly pesticides each year. Farm workers are also seeking a spiritual community. “This spirituality gives rise to new songs to the Lord, songs filled with an authentic joy because it is spirituality that is nourished by the hope of a people familiar with the suffering caused by poverty and contempt.” (2)

In 2004, North Carolina farm workers won a contract with the NC Growers’ Association and Mt. Olive Pickle Co. ending the boycott of Mt. Olive pickles and gaining respect in the workplace for over 8,500 farm workers. With this victory, there was much celebration among farm workers and advocates. Now there is the acknowledgement that there are over one hundred thousand additional farm workers who need protections, wage increases, and benefits. This need for full deliverance from oppression is reminiscent of a speech made by Frederick Douglass at a Fourth of July Celebration in 1852 when he reminded the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of liberty’s unfinished business. Though referring to slavery, his challenge of the need for awareness, action, and hope is relevant today. He implies that since the church did not stand against slavery, then it:

Regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love and good will towards man. It esteems sacrifice above mercy; psalm-singing above right doing; solemn meetings above practical righteousness. A worship that can be conducted by persons who refuse to give shelter to the houseless, to give bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, and who enjoin obedience to a law forbidding these acts of mercy, is a curse, not a blessing (3).

While it is through oppression that marginalized communities are blessed and thus promised liberation, it is through solidarity with farm workers and other marginalized peoples that many of us can participate in the collective journey toward justice. Without communion with farm workers, who nourish us physically and spiritually, we are not able to challenge the individualism, discrimination, and oppression that support injustice based on one’s documentation status, country of origin, color of skin, language spoken, or money earned. As long as farm laborers continue to live in exile away from their families, earn poverty wages, and work and live in life-threatening conditions, liberty has unfinished business. It is only through a communal journey of hardship and conflict that farm workers and advocates can restore the full community to health—to a life free of oppression—and therefore be full of joy.

By Melinda Wiggins, Executive Director, Student Action with Farmworkers

Sources
1. Libby Manny, Alejandra Okie, Melinda Wiggins, eds. “Interview with Miguel by Luis Mendoza.” Fields Without Borders/Campos Sin Fronteras: An Anthology of Documentary Writing and Photography by Student Action with Farmworkers’ Interns (SAF: Durham, 1998).
2. Gutierrez, 19. 3. Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” 05 July 1852.
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Worship Aids for Psalm 126

Responsive Reading

When we are really honest with ourselves, we must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us. So, it is how we use our lives that determines what kind of people we are. It is my deepest belief that only by giving do we find life.
For whosoever would save his or her life will lose it, and whoever loses his or her life for my sake, will find it.

But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. God gave us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on earth.
Therefore, choose life that you and your descendents may live.

Our struggle is not easy. Those who oppose us are rich and powerful and they have many allies in high places. We are poor. Our allies are few. But we have something the rich do not own. We have our bodies and our spirits and the just nature of our cause.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than humankind, and the weakness of God is stronger than humankind.

We can choose to use our lives for others to bring about a better and a more just world for our children. People who make that choice will know hardship and sacrifice. But if you give yourself totally to the non-violent struggle for peace and justice, you also find that people will give you their hearts and you will never go hungry and you will never be alone. In giving yourself, you will discover a whole new life full of meaning and love.
But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary: they shall walk and not faint.

What do we want the churches to do? We don’t ask for more cathedrals. We don’t ask for bigger churches or fine gifts. We ask for its presence with us, as God among us. We ask the churches to sacrifice with the people for social justice, and for love of brother and sister. We don’t ask for words. We ask for deeds… a multitude of simple deeds for justice, carried out by men and women whose hearts are focused on the suffering of the poor and who yearn, with us, for a better world. Together, all things are possible!
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. Amen.

(from Scripture and the words of César Chávez, found at the National Farm Worker Ministry website, www.nfwm.org, under “Worship Resources.”)

Prayer of Intercession

Let us seek God’s help in the struggle for justice for farm workers.
For the workers who harvest the food that comes to our tables, may they have a living wage. Lord, hear our prayer.
May the seeds of our actions produce a harvest of justice.
For the fruits of decent housing, health care, and hope for the future. Lord, hear our prayer.

May the church be filled with the Holy Spirit to be in solidarity with the workers.
For strength to the organizers who work for the fruits of justice. Lord, hear our prayer.

God bless our hearts and our hands in this harvest of justice.
Amen.

(from the National Farm Worker Ministry, www.nfwm.org)

Prayer for Mindfulness

Let us begin by recalling the words of César Chávez: “Every time we sit at a table at night or in the morning to enjoy the fruits and grain and vegetables from our good earth, remember that they come from the work of men and women and children who have been exploited for generations…” Almighty God, too often we don’t pay attention, we don’t stop to think that, even in this day and age, injustice remains an invisible ingredient in much of the food that we eat. Shake us awake, O God, open our eyes to see our power and obligation as consumers to help put things right. Justice demands it. Love demands it.

Amen.

(from National Farm Workers Ministry, www.nfwm.org)

A Thanksgiving Litany

O God of seed and harvest, the meal before us is a sight to behold and we are grateful.
The meat and the vegetables, the fruit and bread, the drink and fellowship of this meal are gifts from Your mighty hand and outstretched arm.

From egg to chick to bird to food, countless human hands have brought this turkey to our table.
We are grateful for the farmers, the poultry plant workers, the shippers and market place workers, and those who have prepared this meal.

We are sorry and repent for any suffering, abuse or exploitation that workers feel as the result of their labor on our behalf.
We commit ourselves to eat this meal in peace, and rise from this table for work for justice and harmony on the earth and among the people of the earth.

Taste and see how good God is!

(from Interfaith Worker Justice, www.nicwj.org)

God of Blessing and Bounty

God of blessing and bounty, we praise you for the wonders of this creation.
As we see the Holiday table before us, we know that you have provided us with more than enough to meet everyone’s need. We celebrate the planting and harvest of your good gifts.

We also know, God of justice and mercy, that there are many people who have not been invited to enjoy the bounty of this table and this nation. We are mindful that many of the uninvited are the workers who made this meal possible. They have often suffered grave injustices in body, mind, and soul because of their labor on our behalf. Forgive us, we pray, for taking their labor lightly and for remaining silent as we enjoy the fruits of their harvest. May this food and fellowship nourish in us a heart of justice and gratitude until we taste the fruit of a just labor for all.
Amen.

(from Interfaith Worker Justice, www.nicwj.org/materials/materials_binserts.html)

United Farmworker Prayer

Show me the suffering of the most miserable,
So I may know my people’s plight.

Free me to pray for others, for you
Are present in every person.

Help me to take responsibility for my own life,
So that I can be free at last.

Grant me courage to serve others,
For in service there is true life.

Give me honesty and patience,
So that I can work with other workers.

Bring forth song and celebration,
So that the Spirit will be alive among us.

Let the Spirit flourish and grow,
So that we will never tire of the struggle.

Let us remember those who have died for justice,
For they have given us life.

Help us love even those who hate us,
So we can change the world.

Amen.

(written by Cesar Chavez, founder of the UFW (1927-1993)
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Suggested Hymns for Justice for Farmworkers

Canto de Esperanza (Song of Hope)
Presbyterian Hymnal 432

Envía Tú Espíritu (Send Your Spirit)
Gather Hymnal (Catholic) 459

Jesus, Lead the Way
Gather Hymnal (Catholic) 642

Una Espiga (Sheaves of Summer)
United Methodist Hymnal 637
Chalice Hymnal (Disciples of Christ) 396
New Century Hymnal (United Church of Christ) 338

Woke Up This Morning
Chalice Hymnal (Disciples of Christ) 623

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Quotes about Justice for Farmworkers

It is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere. But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. He gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on earth. It is an awesome opportunity.
César Chávez

Be angry about injustice! Use your skills to make the world a better place.
Dolores Huerta

What do we want the Church to do? We don’t ask for more cathedrals. We don’t ask for bigger churches of fine gifts. We ask for its presence with us, beside us, as Christ among us. We ask the Church to sacrifice with the people for social change, for justice, and for love of brother. We don’t ask for words. We ask for deeds. We don’t ask for paternalism. We ask for servanthood.
César Chávez

To not take sides is to side with those in power.
Gustavo Gutierrez

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Vignette about Justice for Farmworkers

Voices of Farmworkers

Worker 1
“We were all shaking because it was so hot, almost dehydrated. You know what I did? I left them…It was less than an hour before finishing, and I thought for $6 I am not going to die here. I’m leaving. In the field, there were no shade trees. It is just a ditch full of weeds, but that’s where I stayed, and it didn’t matter if there were snakes or thorns. It didn’t matter…All I wanted was shade.”

Worker 2
“The other day that we were at Mass, I couldn’t feel my face because it was cracked and that comes from the fertilizers. The fertilizer is alive. It is alive. It is alive in the soil! You pick it up and you start with this rash. Then it starts penetrating…”

Worker 3
“I believe it is better to speak up than to stay with the same conditions and do nothing – either way I might lose my job. [But] if I speak up at least I do something for my co-workers.”

Worker 4
Worker in Mexico: “You know, the Americans don’t really like us. They only want us to go there to work, like animals. The Mexicans go there to suffer doing hard work, while the Americans stay out of the fields. In the time I worked in the United States, I never saw an American in the fields. You never see them out picking. They hire Mexican supervisors to work their own countrymen to death. They’re real tyrants. You can’t even stop because they’re always yelling, ‘Faster, faster! You’re getting paid to work, not to stand around.’ We are only shoulders here, wanted because we do the work no one else wants to do.”

Collected in North Carolina by Sister Evelyn Mattern
(from “Hands of Harvest: Hearts of Justice,” curriculum for churches published by the N.C. Council of Churches, 2004, p. 7.)

Testimonies of Child Farmworkers

Richard M., 17 years old
“When I was fourteen I worked in the fields for two weeks, chopping the weeds around the cotton plants…I woke up one night, I couldn’t breathe; I was allergic to something they were spraying in the fields. I stopped breathing…I tried to drink water but I couldn’t so I ran into my mom’s room ‘cause I didn’t have no air in me and I was like [wheezing gasps] trying to get air in there but I couldn’t…At the hospital they said I was allergic to something out there… something they were spraying…They sprayed the fields in the morning. We’d be out there when they were doing it, or when they were leaving, or we could see them doing other fields. They’d spray by plane.”

Ricky N., 17 years old
“We had to share water from one big jug. It wasn’t enough. You couldn’t drink as much as you wanted. Maybe twice a week we would run out of water completely. An old man took us there [to the field] in the morning, set us up, then would come back in the afternoon to pick us up. If you ran out of water, if you passed out, tough.”

From Human Rights Watch, www.hrw.org
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Contacts and Resources for Justice for Farmworkers

www.nccouncilofchurches.org/programs/farmworkers
North Carolina Council of Churches’ Farm Workers program page contains a link to the Farm Worker Ministry Committee of the Council’s website, www.ncfamrworkers.org. Here you can find updates, activities, and resources such as Hands of Harvest, Hearts of Justice: North Carolina Farm Worker Issues in a Biblical Context. This curriculum was produced by the NC Council of Churches Farm Worker Ministry Committee and the National Farm Worker Ministry. It is a 7-session Christian curriculum designed for adult and high school groups, Sunday Schools or Bible Studies. The curriculum guides your group in learning about and reflecting on farm worker issues in the context of biblical values and in exploring how you can be a part of the farm worker movement for justice. The curriculum is available in English and Spanish as a free PDF download from the Council website.

www.ncfarmworkers.org
The Farmworker Institute is a project of the NC Council of Churches’ Farmworker Ministry Committee, with a generous grant from the Duke Endowment. The Farmworker Ministry Committee is made up of a diverse group of advocacy organizations, representing a statewide collaboration dedicated to improving the working and living conditions of our state’s farmworkers.

www.ncfan.org
The Farmworker Advocacy Network (FAN) is a statewide network of organizations that work to improve living and working conditions of farmworkers and poultry workers in North Carolina. Since 2003, they have been collaborating to bring workers’ voices to the legislative process. In the past, FAN has identified and led campaigns to improve housing conditions, pesticide safety and wages.

www.nfwm.org
The National Farm Worker Ministry is an interfaith organization that supports farm workers as they organize for empowerment, justice, and equality. Grounded in faith, NFWM works side by side with farm workers throughout the country, organizing vigils, picketing, coordinating boycotts and educating constituents. Clicking on the North Carolina state office link provides specific NC information on events, resources, and updates on the struggle for farm worker justice. The North Carolina NFWM office also coordinates opportunities for congregations to assist migrant workers directly by providing transportation to meetings, collecting clothing and health kits, and other activities.

www.floc.org
Farm Labor Organizing Committee is a farm worker union which successfully negotiated an historic three-way contract between workers, the North Carolina Grower’s Association, and Mt. Olive Pickle Company in 2004, ending a five-year boycott of Mt. Olive Pickles. The contract resulted in more than 8,000 farm workers in North Carolina becoming the first such guest workers in the U.S. to win union representation and provided for improved wages, safety protections, and grievance procedures.

www.farmworkerlanc.org
Legal Aid of North Carolina, Farmworker Unit is a non-profit that provides free civil legal assistance to farmworkers across the state. The Farmworker Unit is committed to improving the living and working conditions of farmworkers and their families through legal representation and advocacy. Every summer, church members and other volunteers are invited to participate in Legal Aid’s “Witness For Justice” outreach program, accompanying Legal Aid attorneys to migrant camps and handing out educational materials to workers. Contact the Farmworker Unit at 919-856-2180.

www.saf-unite.org
Student Action with Farmworkers, a non-profit organization whose mission is to bring students and farmworkers together to learn about each other’s lives, share resources and skills, improve conditions for farmworkers, and build diverse coalitions working for social change. SAF accomplishes its mission by coordinating summer internships, providing year-round opportunities for direct service, and carrying out community education, advocacy, and community and labor organizing work. SAF summer interns are available to speak at local churches about farm worker issues.

www.ufw.org
United Farm Workers is the organization founded by César Chávez.

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Key Facts about Justice for Farmworkers

Farmworkers play a vital role in cultivating the food we eat everyday, and North Carolina has one of the largest farmworker populations in the nation. Even though 85% of our fruits and vegetables are harvested by hand, farmworkers remain largely invisible.

Agricultural labor includes planting, cultivating, harvesting and preparing crops for market or storage. Migrant farmworkers travel from place to place to work in agriculture and move into temporary housing while working; seasonal farmworkers work primarily in agriculture, but live in one community year-round. Farmworkers are usually employed by farm owners or by “crew leaders,” who serve as intermediaries
between growers and workers.

The H2A program allows foreign “guestworkers” to perform seasonal farm work under a temporary work visa designed for agricultural workers in the United States.

Demographics of North Carolina Farmworkers
North Carolina ranks sixth in the nation in the number of migrant farmworkers. There are approximately 150,000 farmworkers and their dependents in North Carolina each growing season, but this estimate is considered low. In the United States there are two to three million farmworkers. Even though the overall number of farmworkers in North Carolina has decreased over the last 20 years, the number of migrant farmworkers has nearly doubled. Ninety-four percent of migrant farmworkers in North Carolina are native Spanish speakers. Nationally, most farmworkers are unaccompanied males whose families still live in their home countries.

The US Department of Labor reports that 53% of farmworkers nationally are undocumented (working without legal authorization), 25% are US citizens, and 21% are legal permanent residents.

Farmworkers’ impact on North Carolina agriculture, including food, fiber and forestry, contributes over $59 billion annually to North Carolina’s economy and represents 22% of North Carolina’s income. Each farmworker’s labor contributes over $12,000 in profits to North Carolina’s economy annually.

Major North Carolina crops requiring hand labor include: tobacco, Christmas trees, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, apples, bell peppers, and other fruits and vegetables. Many farmworkers also work in greenhouses and nurseries.

Economic Profile
Poverty: Nationally, farmworkers’ average annual income is $11,000; for a family it is approximately $16,000. Farmworkers on the East Coast earn about 35% less than the national average.

Hard work, low pay: At 40¢ per bucket (5/8 bushel), a farmworker must pick and haul two tons of sweet potatoes to earn $50.11

Few wage protections: Most farmworkers are exempt from minimum wage laws, and all are exempt from overtime provisions, despite long work days during peak harvest.

Few benefits: Despite pervasive poverty, less than one percent of farmworkers collect general assistance welfare nationwide. Only ten percent of farmworkers report having health insurance through an employer health plan. Fewer than four out of ten workers interviewed said that they would receive unemployment benefits if out of work.

Hunger: Nearly five out of ten North Carolina farmworkers cannot afford enough food for themselves and their families.

Health Profile
Poor housing: Research suggests that the health of North Carolina farmworker families is at risk due to substandard housing. State regulations require only one wash tub for every 30 workers, one shower for every 10 workers, one toilet for every 15 workers, and do not require telephone access in case of emergency.

Overcrowding: Seven out of ten farmworkers on the East Coast live in crowded conditions.

Pesticide exposure: Up to 44% of farmworker families live in housing directly adjacent to agricultural fields, increasing likelihood of pesticide exposure. A 2006 study in Eastern North Carolina showed that most farmworker children are routinely exposed to pesticides.

High rates of illness: Farmworkers face higher incidences than other wage-earners of heat stress, dermatitis, urinary tract infections, parasitic infections, pesticide-related illnesses and tuberculosis. Eight out of ten North Carolina farmworkers surveyed had skin disease.

Limited Workers’ Compensation: In North Carolina, very few farmworkers are covered by workers’ compensation. Only farmers employing ten or more year-round workers or any H2A worker are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance.

Limited access to care: Barriers to receiving health care include lack of transportation, limited hours of clinic operation, cost of health care, limited interpreter services, and frequent relocation in order to seek farm work.

North Carolina Farmworkers are Organizing for Change
In 2004, a historic labor agreement was signed between the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), the North Carolina Growers Association, and the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, unionizing H2A guestworkers for the first time in the nation. The contract includes sick pay, bereavement leave, hiring security, protection from unjustified firing and a grievance procedure allowing workers to report problems on the job
without fear of retaliation.

Sources

  1. All facts are from “Facts about North Carolina Farmworkers,” published by the Farmworker
    Institute (a project of the NC Council of Churches’ Farmworker Ministry Committee), available at: http://www.ncchurches.org/areasofwork/committees/farmworker/nc%20facts.pdf
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