Through Farmworker Justice's work with farmworkers and farmworker service organizations on the ground, we were able to help this undocumented farmworker lift up his voice to describe his experiences living and working in agriculture.
This week in Washington, immigrant groups are protesting the Obama administration’s deportation of immigrants — 2 million, they say, in five years. They want it to stop until Congress finishes passing immigration reform. Here is what it’s like to be an undocumented farm worker, as told (using a pseudonym) by a migrant worker in Florida.
It has been nearly 20 years since I left Mexico and came to Florida — two decades of hard work without getting ahead that much. That’s 20 years in orchards and vegetable fields here, or picking cucumbers in Ohio, apples in Michigan and Washington, tomatoes in Tennessee, melons in Georgia — always in fear of deportation. I’ve spent 20 years dreaming about becoming legal. For me, that’s the American Dream: to be a United States citizen.
We couldn’t make a go of it in Mexico in 1995, my wife and I; there wasn’t enough work so we came here. There really is no way to do it legally — to get a visa that lets you work and stay, unless you have family here or know someone important. I didn’t have any experience in the fields. Farm work was what I could get and so a farm worker is what I became, and that is what I am today. I’m good at it, but it’s not what I want my children to do.
We’d been here a couple of years before we sent for our two kids. It was scary. We paid someone to bring them across the border but for a long time, about a month but it felt like an eternity — we didn’t hear anything. We weren’t sure where they were or even if they were alive. Eventually we got a call that they were safe, but we had to drive to get them at the border. They were about 3 and 5 years old then. Today they are 24 and 22, also working in agriculture, with families of their own. Our other three kids were born here and are citizens.
Farm work is hard. We start in the orchards early, when the humidity is high and the trees are wet. We’re carrying bags and they get heavy, up to 90 pounds of oranges when full, as we climb up and down from tree to tree, reaching in and picking the fruit, placing it in the bag and moving on. We’re soaked all day with moisture and sweat. There aren’t many breaks for water or a bathroom, although some places are better than others. We work when it’s hot and cold; if we can’t work, we don’t get paid.
I travel — always taking my family. In recent years, we have driven 3,000 miles to Washington state. We get to the area where we hear they need apple pickers and look for a contractor. Sometimes we can afford a motel; or we sleep in the car until we find housing. We are cautious; if you attract attention someone could call a cop or the immigration guys. One slip-up and you’re caught in the system that takes you away from your family forever. Half of the people I work with are in the same situation.
When you’re undocumented, people take advantage. We show up for work as part of a crew of anywhere from 9 or 10 to 30 men and women. I’m lucky; I have a car so when I’m in a job with abusive supervisors, I leave. I have seen and heard of supervisors who take advantage of workers who don’t have other options.
This is particularly true for indigenous workers who don’t speak much Spanish or have a car; they stay because of a lack of options. Sometimes they cheat us out of what we are owed, or pay less than the contract promises. Even if we could report it, we would have to hang around instead of hitting the highway to the next job.
We never go back to Mexico. My father died and my wife’s father, but we didn’t attend the funerals. We would have had to leave the kids behind and if we couldn’t get back in, what would happen?
I know people who have been deported, even some married to legal residents or citizens. They tell us Congress might pass immigration reform. The most important thing is to stop breaking up families. I’ve tried to tell my children that the police are their friends, but they know that the police also can destroy our family. They’ve seen it happen with their friends. If we could get legal status or citizenship, none of that would be a problem.
Farm work is the work I have. I like the idea that we feed other families. Where I come from, the family is the center of everything. I hope a new law will protect our families in the United States.
Jaime Diaz is a pseudonym for a farm worker who lives in Florida.
Farmworkers play an integral role in our agricultural sector.
They not only provide labor, but their work also puts the majority of the food we eat on our kitchen tables.
Action 4 News learned many farmworkers are still struggling to be paid the required federal minimum wage.
We spoke with an legal advocate for farmworkers nationwide.
He said not much has changed over the last couple decades for farmworkers, and many still endure unsafe working and living conditions.
"Farmworkers do some of the most important work in this country. They feed us and yet, they are excluded from many labor laws and labor protections," said Farmworker Justice President and attorney Bruce Goldstein.
The Washington D.C. based advocacy group, Farmworker Justice, said many farmworkers are afraid to stand up for their rights because more than half are undocumented immigrants.
"It’s not good for anyone- low wages, poor working conditions. It can mean fear of going to the police when there is crime," explained Goldstein.
Francisco Alvarez has worked as a farmworker for over 20 years. A few years back, he went to South Carolina to work on a tobacco farm. He was not only forced to live in substandard conditions, but he was also paid less than minimum wage.
"[The boss] already had 15 people without eating and living in a warehouse with only bread and water. I asked , ‘You're not going to have us living like them in a shed with the cows?’" Alvarez recalled.
Alvarez tried proving he had documentation, but he says the owner didn't care.
"When he looked at my green card and my brother's, he said, ‘That's no good. Throw it away, throw it away in the trash,’" said Alvarez.
He walked off the job after three days.
Goldstein said farmworkers are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which is why they are not entitled to overtime pay nor have the same occupational safety protections.
"Basically, these exclusions are because agribusiness has more political power than farmworkers do," said Goldstein.
It’s something he hopes will change.
Farmworker Justice is pushing for immigration reform to allow farmworkers the opportunity to obtain citizenship.
Alvarez said while a reform would open doors for farmworkers to do other jobs, more needs to be done to change current working conditions because whether you are an American citizen, an immigrant with a work visa, or are undocumented, many times you are treated equally poor.
"If we got immigration reform, we still have employers like farm owners who abuse people because we already have our green cards, but where are we going to work if there are employers who tell us it’s worthless?" asked Alvarez.
Today we celebrate an important victory in the fight for migrant workers' rights.
Thomas Perez, U.S. Secretary of Labor, and Alfonso Navarrete Prida, Secretary of Labor and Social Welfare for Mexico, will meet face-to-face for the first time. They will engage in ministerial consultations and sign a joint declaration pursuant to the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC), the labor side accord to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The declaration responds to a petition filed by CDM in 2011 on behalf of migrant workers in the fairs and carnivals, and also addresses petitions filed in 2003 and 2005 by Farmworker Justice, Northwest Workers' Justice Project and other organizations. The signing represents the first such ministerial declaration signed between the U.S. and Mexico in twelve years. According to Sarah Rempel, CDM Policy Director, "The fact that the labor secretaries are addressing abuses faced by guestworkers in their first ever meeting sends a strong statement about the critical importance of this pressing issue."
In CDM's petition, fair and carnival workers alleged that they were paid below minimum wage, were deprived of overtime wages, and were not paid for all the hours they worked. Workers also paid hefty recruitment fees and other costs in Mexico in order to get jobs in the United States."Migrants' rights should be protected. We go to work in the United States, to help U.S. companies with their business. To be exploited like this is an injustice," Leonardo Cortez, former H-2B fair and carnival and petitioner, insisted.
According to the NAALC, now in its twentieth year, Canada, Mexico, and the United States are obliged to provide the same labor and employment protections to migrant workers as to their own nationals. But, as described in CDM's petition, the U.S. is not meeting its obligations.
"We are pleased to see action being taken in response to these petitions, but the success of this process will depend on its implementation. CDM looks forward to engaging with the DOL and STPS in the upcoming stakeholder meetings," stated Rachel Micah-Jones, Executive Director of CDM. The implementation must include pre-departure education, increased enforcement of labor and employment laws, and access to legal services for guestworkers.
"Despite the long delay in this process, we are pleased that the governments of the United States and Mexico will discuss the longstanding concerns about the unequal treatment of H-2A agricultural workers under U.S. labor laws and the need for greater enforcement of farmworkers' labor rights on North Carolina's farms," said Bruce Goldstein, President of Farmworker Justice, a national advocacy group that filed one of the formal complaints that the labor ministers are discussing. "Both governments have a responsibility to end the rampant abuses suffered by guestworkers in the tobacco and other harvests in North Carolina."
Today's ministerial declaration is a first step for the governments to ensure that migrant workers' rights are respected under the international treaty. It is an important step and worth applauding, but there is more work to be done.
Today's guest blogger is Farmworker Justice volunteer Valentina Stackl.
Since International Women’s Day, on March 8th, over 1600 women held 24-hours fasts across 35 states as well as in Washington DC and Mexico City. The month long action culminated with a 48-hour fast with over 100 women on the National Mall. I was one of those women.
Why did we fast? We went without food to feed the courage of elected officials to pass fair and just immigration reform and to stop the deportations.
The event was hosted by We Belong Together, which is an initiative of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. It was also a part of Fast for Families, a group that hosted an event at the end of 2013 in which core fasters fasted for comprehensive immigration reform for over 22 days on the national mall. Fast for Families also finished their “Fast for Families Across America” bus tour, which lasted seven weeks and reached more than 90 Congressional districts, just as we women finished our fast on the mall.
The over 100 women came from all over the country and were both immigrant and native-born. The youngest was a teenager, the oldest in her 70s. We came from women’s rights organizations; immigrant rights groups, faith, labor and community organizations. The group included farmworker women and domestic workers. We were all united by the desire to send a message for fair immigration reform and an end to the suffering caused by deportations.
I fasted on behalf of Farmworker Justice because immigration reform with a roadmap to citizenship is critically important to farmworkers and our nation’s food security.
Over 50% of the roughly 2 million farmworkers are undocumented. The current immigration system harms farmworkers, farmers and the nation. Farmworkers work extremely hard at low wages in a dangerous occupation to perform an essential role cultivating and harvesting the food for our tables. But when the majority of workers lack legal status, most farmworkers are too fearful of deportation or being fired to challenge wage theft, dangerous conditions or other workplace violations.
Congress must enact legislation that reforms our broken immigration system and creates an accessible roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million aspiring Americans, including farmworkers and their families.
After almost 48 hours of fasting someone asked the crowd “are you hungry?” and without hesitation the women replied “hungry for justice!” While our fast is over, the fight continues until we see a fair and humane immigration system for America’s immigrants.
Immigration is a critically important issue for farmworkers. Learn about current legislation proposals impacting farmworkers.
Learn about the history of guestworker programs, H-2A program for temporary agricultural work, and the H-2B visa program.