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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Lives of Farm Workers Part I

I don’t consider myself to be an expert on farm workers, though I do feel I am pretty educated on the issue and on some of the history. And, of course, it is part of Food Empowerment Project's outreach efforts because of how passionately I feel about it.

In the 1970s, my mom participated in the first boycott of grapes organized by the United Farm Workers, so I was exposed to the issues of farm worker justice at a young age. Then, in the 1980s, I joined the grape boycott when it started again.

In Austin, Texas, I attended St. Edward’s University, which has a program called CAMP (College Assistance Migrant Program). I remember learning about it when I started my work study job my first year there – they told me about the program, and my response was, “But we don’t have migrant farm workers anymore.” Unfortunately, this offended my boss, who actually had been a recipient of the program many years before. (She never did like me, but I think it was because of my involvement in animal rights which was pretty unheard of to many at the school.)

I had no idea. I thought that certainly the U.S. had found a way to give permanent jobs to those who grow our food. Not so. By the time I was graduating, I was doing papers on farm worker issues as I was going to school with them and was learning directly from them.

I remember one of the students who truly opened my eyes as she told me about her family and their experiences on the farms. Her mom would have sores on her body due to the agricultural chemicals, and although she was a little girl, she was the only one in her family who spoke English so the foreman would yell at her. How many times does a grown man get away with yelling at a young girl?

Fast forward to where I am now. As most of you probably know, justice for farm workers is a big part of Food Empowerment Project's mission. And I have done my best to stay informed on these issues; admittedly, I usually feel as if I have a good handle on it. You can read some of what we have been talking about on these pages of our website:

And yet, I continue to learn more and, well, none of it is good.

Several months ago I was contacted by an amazing high school student in Gilroy, Calif. I had the opportunity to meet her and her wonderful group. She was so incredibly informed on these issues – more so than even many college students I speak to.

But in addition to her desire to volunteer with us, she also wanted to connect us with the Center for Farmworker Families. Through this, I met the founder and an inspiring woman named Dr. Ann Lopez. She has studied farm worker issues in the Salinas area (this is near Santa Cruz and a strawberry-growing region) for more than 15 years.

One of their projects is to conduct Farm Worker Reality Tours. A few Food Empowerment Project volunteers and I had the opportunity to join one of these tours before my speaking engagement in Vancouver.

We were able to go out with a farm worker to a strawberry field where he showed us how he works, and then we were able to take a tour of the “house” that he shares with his wife and seven children (and at least one dog).

We found that strawberry workers like him (to protect him and his family, I will not even use an alias) can only expect to live to be 49. He spends 13 hours a day bending over, picking strawberries. The top salary is about $9 an hour, and they will earn .70 cents per 12 baskets they are able to fill. Incentive to work quickly means workers (who don’t earn a lot) are less likely to take breaks.

According to Dr. Lopez, this is one of the few families she has ever met where the whole family is still intact -- where the father didn’t come alone to the U.S. to send money back home. He brought the whole family with him.

Their house is a converted shack. It has one bedroom with a small kitchen and an even smaller living room. The bathroom is incredibly tiny as well. They have lovely portraits of the family up on the walls. But the place seriously looked in desperate need of repair and they pay $900 a month for it. In downtown San José (about 1 hour away) you can get a nice apartment for about a hundred dollars more. And yet, here are workers who get paid doing back-breaking work and essentially being gouged financially at the same time. Their water? It is contaminated – full of nitrates. He doesn’t complain as he doesn’t want to get in trouble and lose his job.

The houses in the surrounding hills are large and look down on the fields. These are owned by the people who make the money off the fruits of land and the backs of the workers.

When we asked for the name of a strawberry company that treats its workers well, we were told Swanton:

Part II will include testimonials of the farm workers and their stories of crossing the border and their work.

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