Justice Perspective: Fairness for farmworkers

Tue, Jun 23rd 2015 02:00 pm
Associate Public Policy Coordinator, Catholic Charities
Deacon Don Weigel
Deacon Don Weigel

The last time you were in the produce section of your favorite grocery store, chances are you didn't think about the people who made it possible for all of those fruits and vegetables to be there in front of you. We rarely think about that.  It's almost as if the tomatoes and lettuce and apples just appear by magic.

The reality is, of course, there are a great number of people who are engaged in getting produce to you and me, and it begins with the workers on the farms who grow all of that food. All across our state there are thousands of men and women, both residents and migrants, who pick, harvest and gather the crops that make up not only our produce, but our dairy and grains.

Unfortunately, these workers are not afforded the same benefits as workers in every other industry. Farmworkers are excluded from many of the laws that establish worker protections, including overtime pay, unemployment and workers' compensation funds and public health protections like sanitation and housing standards.

This unfair treatment has its origins in the New Deal era. In the 1930s, legislation was introduced around the country that reformed workers' rights. Farmworkers were excluded from those reforms because at the time most were African-American, and the Southern segregationists insisted on leaving them out of the reforms as a condition of supporting the legislation. These segregationist practices were known as Jim Crow laws, and the laws that govern farmworkers are still a part of that shameful part of our history. The difference is that now many of the farmworkers in our state are Latino, not African-American, and the same unfair treatment continues.

It is outrageous that we have an entire segment of our working population in this state who are not given the same basic rights as every other group of laborers.  Imagine yourself having a job that does not pay overtime, requires you to work seven days a week, and prevents you from getting together with your co-workers to talk to your employer about these conditions. There is no justifiable reason for treating farmworkers differently from other workers in the state.

Again this year, legislation has been introduced in the Legislature to solve this problem. It is called the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, and it would give farmworkers the right to bargain collectively, to receive overtime for working more than an eight-hour day, and receive the benefits of unemployment insurance and workers compensation. The bill also requires that each worker be given at least 24 consecutive hours of rest each week. More than 15 years ago, farmworkers were finally covered under the minimum wage laws. This legislation would bring even greater economic justice for agricultural workers.

Catholic Social Teaching has long defended the rights of workers and supported the dignity of work. If we are to protect that dignity, then workers must have the right to decent wages, safe and healthy conditions, and a participation in the decisions that affect them and their co-workers. It is no wonder that the New York State bishops support this bill.

The next time you are enjoying some of the fine produce from our state, give thanks to God for the people who labored so hard to bring it to your table and then call your state senator and assembly member and tell them to pass the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.

Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Buffalo and is a Global Fellow with Catholic Relief Services.     

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