Advocacy & Activism, Migrant & Seasonal Workers, Working Conditions

Gainesville Marks National Farm Workers Awareness Week

From Gainesville.com, The Gainesville Sun, “Gainesville marks National Farm Workers Awareness Week” by Kimberly Moore Wilmoth, Staff Writer, 29 Mar 2011.

Straughn Farms Windsor area Blueberry Farm foreman Romelio Carbajal, at right, assists workers with the farm's pruning work Tuesday, May 23, 2006. Carbajal, a U.S. Citizen, said he walked for four days before arriving to Houston, Texas when he crossed the Mexican border many years ago. Carbajal said he's worked on all types of farms all over the United States. Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun

Straughn Farms Windsor area Blueberry Farm foreman Romelio Carbajal, at right, assists workers with the farm's pruning work Tuesday, May 23, 2006. Carbajal, a U.S. Citizen, said he walked for four days before arriving to Houston, Texas when he crossed the Mexican border many years ago. Carbajal said he's worked on all types of farms all over the United States. Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun

[Gainesville, FL] — As the spring sun ripens Alto Straughn’s blueberry crop, more than a thousand seasonal workers are beginning to descend on his farm east of Waldo, where they will pick the plump berries for about a month before moving on to another crop somewhere else.

“They’re paid piecemeal, but they’re guaranteed minimum wage,” said Straughn, who has been a farmer since the 1960s. “They average $12 to $14 an hour.”

Straughn said his workers start at about 9:30 or 10 in the morning and pick until 5 or 6 in the evening.

Like the workers at Straughn’s, seasonal workers can be seen stooped over beans, tomatoes or melons, or high on ladders snatching oranges from tree branches, hand-picking the fruits and vegetables we eat. They are the men, women and children who work on area farms.

Most are not paid like the workers at Straughn’s, though. Most are paid by the pound harvested instead of minimum wage, most don’t have health insurance or the right to overtime and they travel from crop to crop throughout the country, according to local experts.

This week, several area agencies, churches and foundations in Alachua County are joining together to mark the 12th Annual National Farm Workers Awareness Week with several events in town, including a discussion Wednesday evening about a group of Haitians who were allegedly forced into slave labor for several years after a farm’s manager and two others were charged with taking the workers’ passports, not allowing them to leave and not paying them.

According to the Interfaith Alliance of Immigrant Justice, agricultural laborers feed the world:

  • 85 percent of our fruits and vegetables are handpicked by an estimated 2-3 million men women and children who work in the fields, groves and orchards.
  • Farm work is the third most dangerous job in the United States, with workers suffering the highest rate of toxic chemical injuries, heat stress, dermatitis, urinary tract infections, parasitic infections and tuberculosis.
  • Overtime, unemployment insurance and protection when joining a union are not guaranteed to them, as they are to other workers in America.
  • Most work for a salary below minimum wage.
  • The average migrant family earns between $10,000 and $17,000 annually.

Statistics with the U.S. Census and the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences show that about 500 farm workers live in Alachua County, including supervisors, working nearly 120,000 acres of crops. But many more are migrant workers, who simply stop in Gainesville for a season and then move on to find more work elsewhere.

“Many farm workers migrate to where they can work and spend short periods of time — a few weeks to a few months — at one location, long enough for harvest, then move to where the next harvest is,” said Vickie Mena, who works with the Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “Oftentimes, the farm that the workers pick from houses the workers, other times they will stay at hotels that may or may not be supplied by the farmer or the contractor that has contracted them to the farm.”

Straughn said he does not provide housing or transportation for the workers on his farms. They stay wherever they can and drive out to the farm in their own vehicles.

Straughn added that officials with the U.S. Department of Labor come out to his blueberry and/or watermelon farms at least once a year, stay for several days to observe, interview workers and make sure children are being treated correctly. he said he has been cited for minor violations over the years, but the last time he was fined was about 12 years ago when some teenagers were found driving a tractor.

The Alachua County School District Website shows there are approximately 1,600 migrant children who live in the school district each year. The district’s migrant education program provides a regular education to these children, along with supplemental instruction in basic skills to compensate for academic deficiencies inherent in a highly mobile population. The program, paid for by the state, also provides support services, such as health, nutrition, and other social services, necessary to enable eligible migratory children to participate effectively in instructional programs.

While migrant farm laborers are here, they do the back-breaking, grueling labor that most Americans say they do not want to do, including working long hours in scorching heat, hauling heavy loads, being exposed to toxic pesticides and injury from sharp knives and other dangerous tools. From 1992 to 2006, 423 agricultural workers in the United States were reported to have died from exposure to environmental heat, according to the centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the Interfaith Alliance, tomato pickers often toil 10-12 hour days in horrible conditions and earn no benefits – no health insurance, no overtime, no minimum wage.

Like textile workers at the turn of the last century, tomato harvesters are still paid by the piece.

The average piece rate today is 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick, a rate that has remained stagnant for more than 30 years. At the current rate, a worker must pick more than 2.25 tons of tomatoes to earn minimum wage in a typical 10-hour workday — nearly twice the amount a worker had to pick to earn minimum wage thirty years ago.

What might surprise some people is that some of those fruits and vegetables they’re eating are picked by the small hands of child laborers.

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, it is legal for farms to hire children under the age of 12, as long as their parent or guardian consent to it — or their parent or guardian owns the farm. A child of 10 or 11 years may work as a hand-harvester for no more than eight weeks a year.

And according to the National Center for Farmworker Health, between 300,000 and 800,000 children work each year in farm labor and attend, on average, three different schools.

Straughn said he does not allow child labor on his farm because of stringent laws.

“We actually monitor the field to make sure kids are not there,” he said. “Although when you’ve got 1,200 people out there, it’s hard to keep kids out. You’re in a no-win situation. You don’t want them out there at all.”

This week’s organizers are focusing one of their protests on Publix supermarkets, a company they say profits from farm worker poverty. They are collecting pennies to give to Publix to encourage them to reach an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to increase tomato pickers’ wages by just one penny a pound. That could mean an extra 32 cents for every bucket of tomatoes they harvest.

Contact Moore Wilmoth at 374-5036 or kimberly.moore@nytrng.com.

Read at: Gainesville.com, The Gainesville Sun, “Gainesville marks National Farm Workers Awareness Week” by Kimberly Moore Wilmoth, Staff Writer, 29 Mar 2011.

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