Views differ on what's truly good for farm workers - Catholic Courier

Views differ on what’s truly good for farm workers

Last week in a Hamlin field, 20-year-old Alex Lucas labored alongside his cousins and brothers to plant cabbage for Martin Farms. All residents of Mexico, the family members have also worked in Texas and California to plant and harvest crops that feed U.S. citizens.

“There’s more work here,” Lucas said when asked why he traveled so far from his homeland to labor. The other workers nodded their heads in agreement as they cooled off beneath a tree during their lunch break. Through a translator, they all noted that they are supporting their relatives back home or in nearby Brockport.

During a “Bienvenida,” or welcoming, celebration in Brockport June 22, Tomas Paz said he has harvested apples in New York and oranges in Florida, and prefers to the apple harvest.

It’s easier to harvest apples than oranges, he said, even though he needs to pick more apples to make as much money as he would picking the same number of oranges.

“It depends on the farmer,” he said of apple picking. “Some pay well, some don’t.”

God and labor

Paz was among dozens of farm workers and their families, mostly from Mexico, who attended the June 22 Bienvenida. Speaking through a translator, Paz and the other workers said they have used the money they’ve made in the U.S. to support their families back home and better their own lives through education.

The farm workers and their families attended Mass at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, and then marched to neighboring First Baptist Church for dinner. They ended the celebration with a festive dance at the State University of New York College at Brockport.

An annual effort of Brockport’s Catholic and Protestant churches, the celebration is a recognition of the contribution farm workers make to the area, organizers said. This year’s celebration also marked the establishment of a covenant between the Diocese of Rochester and the Western New York office of Rural and Migrant Ministry, an ecumenical organization.

The covenant pledges the diocese and the ministry to mutual support regarding advocacy for migrant workers, according to Sister of Mercy Janet Korn, social justice awareness coordinator for diocesan Catholic Charities. She and other diocesan officials said the two organizations will increase the cooperative efforts they have already undertaken in such areas as migrant education, recreation and social services.

A statement from Bishop Matthew H. Clark hailing the covenant was read during the Bienvenida Mass.

“The (diocese) has long worked to extend a welcome to our migrant brothers and sisters and to stand with them in their struggle for justice,” the bishop wrote. “That is why we are both pleased and grateful that Rural and Migrant Ministry has expanded their mission into this region of Western New York. We welcome the opportunity to work with them on behalf all farm workers.”

On their behalf

This year, diocesan social-justice advocates joined other Catholics from across New York to press the state Legislature for passage of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. The bill has passed the Assembly and has been referred to the Senate. It calls for the following changes in state laws regarding farm workers:

  • Farm owners would be required to offer employees at least 24 consecutive hours of rest each week, with farm workers allowed the option of taking that time off or working.
  • Farms would establish eight-hour work days, requiring overtime at one-and-a-half times the normal rate after eight hours.
  • Farm laborers would have collective-bargaining rights.
  • Sanitary codes would apply to all farm and food-processing labor camps housing migrant workers, regardless of the number of housing occupants.
  • Farms would be required to report on-the-job injuries, and provide farm workers with claim forms for workers’ compensation. Currently, state law requires farms with yearly payrolls of more than $1,200 to carry compensation insurance

Farm-worker advocates claim the bill is needed to raise the status of farm workers, whom they say are treated by law as second-class workers and denied the rights other New York workers enjoy. The farm-worker bill has been promoted vigorously by the Centro De Trabajadores Agricolas, known in English as the Independent Farmworker Center, which is funded in part by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, an anti-poverty program of the U.S. bishops. CITA organizer Salvador Solis, a resident alien from Mexico, said that migrant farm workers deserve the Fair Labor Act after working in New York for decades.

“I want to know why, after 50 years of being here (in the United States), that we have no rights,” he said.

Farm owners argue, however, that many of the law’s intentions — including days of rest and workers’ compensation — are already in effect on most farms. Farmer advocates add that collective bargaining in particular could destroy the state’s agricultural industry if workers exercise the right to strike during harvests. They also said that governmental regulations and ongoing technological farming improvements are already making farming costly.

The farm owners say they would like to raise their farm workers’ wages, but that they operate in a business with slim profit margins often marked by many bad years with revenue losses. According to farm-owner advocates, farm-worker wages may range from $5.15 an hour to $10 or more depending on various factors, including the type of farm and work.

Dairy farmer John Lincoln, a parishioner of St. Bridget/St. Joseph Church in East Bloomfield, said Catholic farm owners feel the church uses “hurtful rhetoric” when it advocates for farm workers.

“They don’t listen to the farmers’ side of the story,” said Lincoln, president of the New York Farm Bureau, which represents 34,000 farm owners and agricultural businesses statewide. “I’d love to pay my workers $20 an hour, but we can’t afford to do it in this global economy.”

He and other farmers said the church overlooks the fact that U.S. farms must compete in a global market against nations that can sometimes offer food at prices far cheaper than those of U.S. farmers. However, CITA’s director, Aspacio Alcantara, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said farm workers should not have to “bear the brunt of the problems of the agricultural industry.” Alcantara has organized farm workers across the state to press for better labor conditions and pay.

“Catholic social teaching recognizes and affirms the right for people to participate in the decisions that affect their lives,” Alcantara said through translator Bill Abom, coordinator of Rural and Migrant Ministry’s Brockport office. Alcantara expressed frustration with farmers and farm owners who oppose the right to collective bargaining. Abom added that farm-worker contracts could contain no-strike clauses.

Alcantara also said that he is also frustrated by farm owners who continually point out that farm workers make better money here than they would in such countries as Mexico.

“We should not take advantage of the problems and poverty in Mexico by exploiting (Mexican) labor here in the United States,” he said.

If farm owners recognized the right of farm workers to collectively bargain in New York state, Alcantara added, both sides could cooperate on such initiatives as campaigns to promote the state’s products. On that note, Abom said the fact that the state’s farm workers were being treated fairly could be included as part of such campaigns.

Lincoln said most of his fellow farmer-owners do value their workers, and recognize that treating them well only comes back to benefit the farm. However, he said, farm-worker advocates must recognize that farm owners are at the mercy of many forces, from the weather to globalization, that can make or break farms.

“Basically, the farm worker isn’t going to be better off than the farmer in the long run,” he said.

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