From BVMCong. org, Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Feb 2012.
“Did you eat today? Thank a farmworker!” has greater meaning for me following the National Farm Worker Ministry Board meeting Jan. 27–28 in Yuma, Ariz., winter lettuce capital of the United States.
Around 5 a.m. our group drove some 45 minutes to the U.S. side of the border crossing, where hundreds of Mexican nationals were waiting at pick-up points for buses to take them to the fields for a day of labor.
Walking among them for a half hour or so, we board members were able to converse with them and gain some insight into their daily experience harvesting the food for our tables.
Depending on how close to the border a worker lives, she or he may have awakened at 3 a.m. or earlier to get to the crossing point. There is a wait of 2–3 hours in order to be checked through to the U.S. side. Fast food restaurants and street vendors are all open for breakfast, and drivers of the buses belonging to various growers are pumping gas. It can take another hour or so to drive to the specific worksite for which the worker’s H-2A visa provides seasonal employment at $9.94 per hour. Add 8 hours of work plus lunch, break times and supper, and then reverse the timeline until the worker is back at home in a Mexican town or village. Workers are exhausted by both the work and by long hours of waiting. Their whole routine occurs daily.
The workers know who the “good employers” are. All too often though, employers and unscrupulous job recruiters abuse the visa system, extorting fees and exploiting vulnerable workers. It was a “good employer,” owner of Rodriguez Growers Company, who later that morning brought our NFWM group to two of his extensive fields. In the first, romaine lettuce was being picked and trimmed to the romaine hearts, which were packaged and sealed, tagged, packed in produce cartons, loaded on trucks, and destined for U.S. supermarkets within three days.
Reflecting on our collective experience brought forth comments like, “It’s a parallel universe of thousands of people, hundreds of buses and massive border crossings.” “This is assembly line work outdoors, with machines that never stop.” “It’s industrial control; each team of workers is organized, but work is based on the machine.” “From the worker’s perspective, it is work with dignity, conferring status in the home community.”
For H-2A agricultural workers, contracts and labor standards are in place. Nevertheless, it’s food safety that is primary, over and above any other consideration. So the National Farm Worker Ministry carries on its role of advocacy and accompaniment, especially where standards of worker fairness and safety are violated. NFWM supports small-step achievements. These can become beneficial opportunities for a limited number of individuals from poor communities where families can’t eat regularly. We consumers are beneficiaries as well of farmworker labor.