It was hot standing outside the row of one-room wooden “houses,” and I could not keep the mosquitoes and gnats away from my face and arms as we spoke. I poked around inside a small two-bed cubicle at their invitation—aware that the only access to air besides the screenless window was the doorway, also unscreened. They were from Mexico and Central America, men and women who talked gently and quietly to us through an interpreter. A couple of the younger men talked with us easily enough, but others sat against the walls of the decrepit wood structures and looked at us with searching and tentative eyes.
There in the fields of North Carolina, these Spanish-speaking immigrants harvest cucumbers for 10 to 12 hours a day in the blistering summer heat. Their wages are about 70 cents for a five-gallon bucket. I asked a young man of 19, “If you could change one thing in your situation, what would it be?” He said, “Everything!” He was right. Changing only one aspect of a farm worker’s life is not enough, because all the conditions facing them are undignified, unhealthy and unjust.
It seemed intolerable to me to think that for over 30 years, crammed one-room shacks, lack of decent wages, medical benefits, grievance procedures and job security have been the lot of immigrant farm workers. They are willing to harvest our crops, but are not welcome on the land. It was shameful then. It is still shameful now.
Intimacy with the land is a major portion of a farm worker’s day. In the fields, the land is touched, blessed by the labor of hands that pick, weed and pack. Contrary to what many think of as a highly mechanized agricultural industry, 85 percent of fruits and vegetables are harvested by hand. Those hands belong to thousands of farm workers, who are among the most underpaid and exploited of U.S. workers. To most North Americans, they are virtually invisible.
The land is sprayed with dangerous pesticides, and the workers are routinely exposed to the poisons. Not surprisingly, farm workers suffer the highest rate of chemical-related illness of any occupational group here and in Canada.
Eighty years ago the Council of Women for Home Missions conducted a survey of the living and working conditions of migrants on the East Coast. They found thousands of foreign-born women picking fruit on truck farms and working in canneries while their children went uncared for. Four day care centers were subsequently established in 1920, and the migrant ministry was born. It eventually developed into the National Farm Worker Ministry, which mobilizes support in the religious community for farm workers who are organizing for equality and justice.
Even though 80 years have passed, oppressive child labor is still a sad reality here in the United States, not just in countries halfway around the globe. According to a June 2000 Human Rights Watch report, hundreds of thousands of children and teens labor each year in fields, orchards and packing sheds across the nation. Besides pesticide exposure, they suffer from repetitive-motion disabilities, fatigue, injuries, depression and substance abuse. Education is more a luxury than a right. Only 55 percent of these young people will graduate from high school. More than one-quarter of all farm workers are women, but it takes three farm worker women to earn the amount of money earned by two farm worker men. Farm worker women, moreover, are regularly subjected to sexual harassment, assault and rape.
Without the labor of these harvesters, it would be impossible to support the multi-billion dollar fruit and vegetable industry in the United States. Yet the average annual income of farm workers is about $8,000. In tragic irony, those who harvest our food often cannot adequately feed their own families. The food we serve at our holiday tables and the table itself can remind us that conditions will not change until workers and growers are able to sit across the table from each other, breaking racial boundaries and equalizing relationships in an effort to right the injustices that cause poverty and degrade the dignity of the human person.
Farm workers deserve a harvest of justice, free from fear and exploitation and filled with everything that is good and human and right. Justice will not have been served—and indeed it is “the only portion worth serving”—for those whose labor fills our tables but who are forced to endure substandard working and living conditions all across our land.