Happy Thanksgiving!

2011 SAF Fellows: (from left to right) Marichel Mejia, Kathryn Cox Shrader, Natalie Hyatt, Nandini Kumar, Robyn Levine

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  We’ve finally finished counting down the 20 days to Thanksgiving with 20 different actions to support farmworkers.  We hope that you enjoyed following along, and that you’ll share this information with family and friends as you sit down to enjoy your Thanksgiving meal.

In solidarity,

Marichel, Kathryn, Natalie, Nandini, Robyn


20- SAF Celebrates 20 Years of Growing Farmworker Activists

So far this blog has given you a glimpse into the harsh reality that farmworkers face on a daily basis, and it’s probably left you feeling a bit unsettled at times. But no need to worry- there is hope! Although the path to agricultural labor justice is a long and difficult road, there are hundreds of organizations throughout the United States fighting in solidarity with farmworkers to achieve positive change, and SAF is one of them! Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) is a farmworker activist and advocacy organization based out of Durham, NC. Established in 1992, SAF has worked with thousands of students, farmworker youth and community members throughout the Southeast and nationwide in the movement for farmworker justice, and this year they will be celebrating their 20th anniversary! Woo Hoo!

Running innovative and experiential-based programs for high school and college students, including the Levante Leadership Institute, Student Organizing School, Sowing Seeds for Change Fellowship and Into the Fields Internship, SAF fosters a direct relationship between students, farmworkers and allies to create an enriching learning experience that drives students to become agents of social change in their hometowns and communities. In addition, each year SAF coordinates Farmworker Awareness Week activities on college campuses and runs their “From the Ground Up” program to further increase public awareness about farmworkers and their struggle for rights. It’s organizations like SAF that keep the movement for farmworker justice moving forward- ¡Si Se Puede!

Take Action: Keep yourself updated on farmworker issues by joining the SAF listserv: http://www.saf-unite.org/content/sign-up Or better yet, in honor of their 20th anniversary make a $20 (or more) donation to SAF! : http://www.saf-unite.org/content/donate

19 – In 1919 the International Labor Organization was created by the United Nations.

The purpose of International Labor Organization is to promote the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain, promote the freedom of association and the abolition of forced labor.  To this day, farmworkers are still fighting for these rights. Farmworkers for centuries have continuously been denied the same rights as workers in other industries.

Photo courtesy of SAF taken Summer 2011

1935-The National Labor Relations Act created the right for workers to organize and collectively bargain. Farmworkers were excluded from this act. The NLRA states, “The term “employee” shall include any employee… but shall not include any individual employed as an agricultural laborer”[1]
1938The Fair Labor Standard Act set standard for minimum wage and over time pay and it set 16 as the legal age to work. Farmworkers were excluded from this Act. Furthermore the legal age for working in the fields was set at 12 years old.

During the 20th century the US government and corporations claimed that these policies were necessary in order to decrease the cost of food.  The idea was that cheap labor produced food that was readily available and affordable; therefore farmworkers became the exception industry.

Now lets take a minute to think about at what price we are paying for our food:

The price of farmworkers being denied basic human rights.
The price of 30 farmworkers a year dying from preventable heat stress.
The price of children being subjected to harmful cancer causing chemicals.
The price of families living at sub poverty levels just to offer us the consumers food at a price that is said to be “FAIR.”

Photo courtesy of SAF taken Summer 2011

The US government and corporations want us to think we have to have cheap labor in order to have affordable food.  This is simply not true.

In 2003, Dole the world’s largest supplier of fruits and vegetable made $4.8 billion dollars in revenues.
Archer Daniels Midland, the world leader in soy meal, corn, wheat and cocoa profited $1.7 billion in 2003. That same year the Chief executive officer, Allen G Andreas, earned of over $2.9 million. [2]

According to Eric Schlosser author of Fast Food Nation, “Maintaining the current level of poverty among migrant farmworkers saves the average American household (just) $50 a year.” [3]

Farmworkers and farmworker advocates have now spent nearly a century tirelessly organizing and pushing to strengthen policies to resolve unjust agricultural labor practices. During the 1960’s Cesar Chavez came together with Hispanic and Filipino farmworkers in a series of peaceful strikes in California. As result of these strikes, congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to finally require minimum wage for farmworkers.

More recently in September of this year, a group of thirty marched 200 miles in 13 days, with the purpose of advancing the fair treatment of farmworkers. Their efforts were noticed and Governor Brown of California signed a farmworker bill (SB 126), which will help farmworkers to overcome obstacles in joining unions. The efforts of farmworkers and advocates will continue until agricultural laborers have equal rights as workers in other industries and more importantly the standards are equally enforced. See the actions steps below to see how you can support a bill that will help to change our broken food system.


Take Action: Learn more about and support the AgJOBS bill, (Agricultural Jobs Opportunies, Benefits, and Security Act) which would ensure the fair treatment of farmworkers.   Click on the links to find your Senators and Representatives. Contact them and tell them to support AgJOBS. Pledge to support the AgJOBS on the UFW website.

[1] National Relations Labor Board. National Relations Labor Act accessed November 2011
[2] Historical and Contemporary Factors Contributing to the Plight of Migrant Farmworkers in the United States accessed November 2011
[3] Migrant Farmworkers: America’s New Plantation Workers accessed November 2011

18- Farmworkers contribute $1.8 billion to North Carolina’s economy.

That’s the value of sales from all crops harvested by hand in SAF’s home state.

This breaks down to $12,000 per farmworker in annual profits to the state’s agricultural sector, which doesn’t include the vital economic boost that the seasonal influx of people gives to the local economy.

Santiago packs tobacco, July 2011. Photo by anonymous co-worker, courtesy of SAF.

North Carolina ranks first in the country in production of tobacco and sweet potatoes, and second in production of Christmas trees. These crops require intense manual labor and pose serious health hazards to workers, including green tobacco sickness (nicotine poisoning), musculoskeletal injuries, and pesticide exposure. Nevertheless, as we pointed out in post #11, farmworkers represent one of the worst-compensated workforces in the country, especially when accounting for occupational hazards.

The $11,000 average annual income per US farmworker is significantly lower for farmworkers in North Carolina. Despite our state’s dependence on agriculture, workers in the Southeast earn about 35% less than the national average.

It’s time our wages and labor laws reflect our appreciation for farmworkers’ vital role in our communities. As North Carolina farmworker Luis put it to me recently,

“I have a message for the community: For all the people who see a worker who works in the field, value his work, because it is that work which brings your food to the table each day.”

TAKE ACTION: Student Action with Farmworkers works to raise national awareness in the farmworker ally community about farmworker issues in the Southeast. If you’re a college student and you call North Carolina home, check out SAF’s Student Organizing School and learn to be an effective advocate for farmworkers in North Carolina and the region.


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17: the age of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez when she died of heat stroke in the California fields

It was a hot day in May 2008, and 17-year-old farmworker Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was tying grape vines at a vineyard near Lodi, California. The temperature was 95 degrees, and Maria Isabel had worked the past nine hours without any breaks. The nearest water cooler was a ten minute walk away, and she knew that if she stopped working, her employer would get angry. A few minutes later, Maria Isabel suddenly fall to the ground, unconscious.

Seeing the situation, Maria Isabel’s employer panicked, telling her fiancé to try reviving her with rubbing alcohol. When this didn’t work, the employer instructed Maria Isabel’s fiancé take her to the local clinic and lie about how she became ill. By the time Maria Isabel arrived at the nearest hospital, she was in a coma, and her body temperature had reached 108 degrees. She died two days later. It was only then that the doctors realized she’d been two months pregnant.

Photo courtesy of the United Farm Workers

Heat-related illness is one of the greatest occupational health hazards that farmworkers face in the fields.
An astonishing sixty-eight farmworkers died of heat stroke between 1992 and 2006—a fatality rate that is twenty times higher than that of the general population (1).

What makes this statistic particularly tragic is that every single one of these deaths could have been prevented. However, many farmworkers and employers receive little to no training on how to prevent, recognize, or treat heat-related illnesses. Even when employers and farmworkers are aware of the risks, employers do not always allow workers to take the necessary precautions.

Three years after Maria Isabel’s untimely death, her family has still not seen justice. The employers who were responsible for delaying Maria Isabel’s care were originally charged with involuntary manslaughter, but the end, they walked away with only a fine, probation, and community service (2). The most infuriating part of this story is that the same company had been fined the previous year for violating heat regulations. But the company never paid the fine, and the department of labor never followed up (3).

There is no reason that even a single farmworker should die of heat stroke. But unless heat-related laws are strengthened and strictly enforced, circumstances will not change. We need YOUR HELP!

TAKE ACTION: Write your Congressmen to demand stronger enforcement of heat safety laws. Suggested letter: “Dear Congressman, I urge you to support stronger enforcement of heat safety laws to protect farmworkers. Heat illness is entirely preventable, yet farmworkers continue to lose their lives harvesting the food that we eat every day. Let us pledge to not have a single farmworker die of heat stroke again in the future. Thank you for your support.”



[1] “Heat-Related Deaths Among Crop Workers — United States, 1992-2006.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, June 20, 2008, 57 (24); 649-653. View article here.

[2] “DA Plea Reduces Manslaughter Charges to Community Service.” From United Farm Workers website. View article here.

[3] “Lawsuit Filed Against Labor Contractor After Pregnant Worker’s Death.” KSEE 24 News, July 20, 2010. View article here.

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16- October 16th is World Food Day

World Food Day celebrates the day on which the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was founded in 1945. Each year on or around October 16th, many events are organized around the world to bring attention to problems in food supply and distribution. World Food Day in the U.S. happened a few weeks ago on October 24th, but the campaign encourages us to speak up throughout the year to support its six main goals. Make sure to take an extra close look at number six:

1. Reduce diet-related disease by promoting safe, healthy foods
2. Support sustainable farms & limit subsidies to big agribusiness
3. Expand access to food and alleviate hunger
4. Protect the environment & animals by reforming factory farms
5. Promote health by curbing junk-food marketing to kids
6. Support fair conditions for food and farm workers

Migrant and seasonal farmworkers often get left out of conversations about building a better food system, and I was really excited to see that Food Day organizers in the U.S. included a commitment to fair treatment for those who plant, cultivate, and harvest the fruits and vegetables we eat. Food Day calls us to recognize that we all must work together to build a sustainable food system that everyone can participate in. Global hunger, diet-related diseases, and environmental degradation affect us all at some level, and this means that we all have a stake in ensuring that those who work in the fields receive fair pay and can access healthy foods for themselves and their families. Once we understand this, we’re forced to realize that even class-privileged people who can afford to buy from local, small-scale farms cannot eat “ethically” while a broader unjust food system exploits farmworkers.

TAKE ACTION: If you live in an area that hosts a farmers’ market or has a locally-owned grocery store, shop there this week to support sustainable farming and fair conditions for farmworkers.


15- There are 150,000 farmworkers in North Carolina…

Photo by Yesenia Leon Leon and Beatriz Cruz, courtesy of SAF

And 29,367 farmworkers in Idaho,
45,800 in Michigan,
186,976 in Washington,
103,453 in Oregon,
197,393 in Texas,
87,677 in Georgia,
76,704 in Arizona,
8,201 in Oklahoma,
7,934 in Maryland,
8,392 in Louisiana,
18,191 in Mississippi,
197,182 in Florida,
1,302,797 in California, and
16,613 in Arkansas [1]
These represent some of the most agriculturally productive states in the country. All in all there are over 3 million farmworkers in the United States who handpick over 85% of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the nation [2]. Given these statistics, it becomes readily apparent that the idealized yeoman farmer of the past is hard to find in American agriculture. Nowadays it is far more common to find open-air sweatshops and fields that operate more like factories rather than small family-owned farms.
Despite the large-scale agro-industry that has developed, many consumers remain unaware of its magnitude and much less aware of the plight of its workforce. But at the very least there is some common knowledge on the environmental damage that results: chemically-charged fertilizers have reduced the diversity of plant species, pesticides have threatened the existence of several bird and insect populations, and  surface water run-off  from the fields has contaminated streams and tributaries [3]. But what about the ways in which large scale agriculture has affected farmworkers?
Fertilizers: “The other day that we were at Mass, I couldn’t feel my face because it was cracked and that comes from the fertilizers. The fertilizer is alive. It is alive. It is alive in the soil! You pick it up and you start with this rash. Then it starts penetrating….” [4]
Pesticides:  “Many times we come early to work when they have just finished spraying and the leaves are wet with chemicals.  I feel a lot of inflammation on my hands from the chemicals that they put on the grape plants.  In addition, nobody knows what the long-term effects of pesticides are. You’re body is eventually going to respond to being exposed to the chemicals” [5]
Water:   Although farmworkers work long hours under the sun in high temperatures, they often lack access to drinking water. One farmworker from Tarboro, NC described that the water provided by his employer comes from a rusty tank, leaving a strong taste of iron in the water so much so that “it is not potable.”  [6]
These quotes show that farmworkers are just as much the victims of the agro-industrial complex as the environment is. Therefore as environmentalists, consumers and activists it is up to us to raise awareness about the farmworker struggle and unite ourselves so that we can collectively work together to bring environmental and social justice to our food system.
TAKE ACTION: Educate yourself and connect with local farmworker organizations in your area. It could be a farmworker unit of a legal service organization, a migrant headstart program, migrant health clinic, farmworker union or community organization. All that matters is that you take the first step of getting involved.
[1] National Center for Farmworker Health. “Enumeration and Population Studies.” <http://www.ncfh.org/?pid=23> (scroll down the page to access the pdf’s that articulate the population sizes for each of the various states). Studies range from 2000-2006, site accessed on Oct. 18, 2011.
[2] Harvest of Dignity. “Farmworker Facts.” <http://pic.tv/harvest/farmworker-facts/&gt; November 17, 2011
[3] Horrigan, Leo, Robert S. Lawrence and Polly Walker. “How Sustainable Agriculture can Adress the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture.” Environmental Health Perspect. May 2002
[4] National Farmworker Ministry. “Voices of Farmworkers.” Quotes and Readings. November 17, 2011 <http://nfwm.org/tag/quotes/&gt;
[5] Mejia, Marichel. Interviews with farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley of California. July 2010
[6] Mejia, Marichel. Anonymous worker testimonies taken from Johnston County, North Carolina. June 2011
[6] Mejia, Marichel. Anonymous worker testimonies taken from Johnston County, North Carolina. June 2011

14- World Diabetes Day is November 14th

World Diabetes Day raises needed awareness and advocacy for the more than 220 million people suffering worldwide from diabetes. According to Dr. Narges Farahi of the NC Farmworker Health Program, diabetes is the leading chronic health condition among migrant and seasonal farmworkers. Currently 25% of farmworkers suffer from diabetes.
Farmworkers are 2 to 3 times more likely to suffer from diabetes than non-Hispanic whites.  This number can be contributed to work enviroment, poverty, cultural factors and migratory factors.[1]

Photo courtesy of SAF taken Summer 2011

As a health outreach worker at the NC Farmworkers Project, I am able to see first hand the risks associated with diabetic farmworkers to their working enviroments.  Lack of transportation to visit the doctor, buy medication and proper food can cause diabetes to go untreated or even worsen. Many farmworkers are secluded at their camps and may be limited to grower-provided transportation that takes them to and from work.

Long intensive work hours from early morning until sometimes late at night, can cause insufficient nutrition, time for food preparation and especially make it difficult to monitor blood sugar and take insulin.

At some camps farmworkers have little control over the food they consume. The food may be prepared for them by one or two main cooks. Many camps may have a lack of proper cooking equipment.  I was at a camp only a few nights ago and one man mentioned there were only two stoves shared among 46 men. The stoves were located in a stuffy hot kitchen that did not have proper ventilation or air conditioning, making it even more difficult to cook. He mentioned many of the workers would buy their food frozen or pre-made.

According to Dr. Dana Wagner who is the assistant director of Women, Infants and Children office at the Salud para la Gente clinic in Santa Cruz, CA, “Families that work in the fields tend to be our poorest families. Like many poor in our country, the field workers will tend to eat convenient foods, fast foods, cheap foods,”  [2]

Poverty is another factor that affects farmworker’s access to proper foods and medications. From previous posts we have already learned that farmworkers are one of the most underpaid and yet the majority still does not have worker provided health insurance.

In honor of World Diabetes Day and farmworkers across the United States, please see the action steps below to see how you may promote and provide proper nutrition to farmworkers in your area.

Recipe book created by Cecelia Hinek y Guadalupe Ferreyra. Click to see inside.

Help spread the word about our blog: Downloadable Flyer

Take Action:
Download and Share 
Recetas Saludables, a recipe book especially created for diabetic farmworkers. It contains Latino-friendly recipes that are healthy and affordable. Share it with your local clinic or farmworker supporting organization.
Donate low sugar and salt foods to your local food pantry or help your local farmworker organization run a food drive for diabetic friendly food.
Volunteer with a Diabetes Education Program: Find one in you area

[1] Issues We Face: Diabetes accessed November 2011
[2] Fieldworkers Nutrition Problems accessed November 2011

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13- Farm Labor and the Thirteenth Amendment

The Thirteenth Amendment declared in 1865 that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist within the United States.” Following the Emancipation Proclamation, this amendment enshrined in our Constitution the first major labor reform in our nation’s history. Today, 146 years later, slaves still toil in the United States fields to harvest our food.

Photo by Pedro Escobar and Ben Pounds, 2010. Courtesy of SAF.

We don’t mean they work like slaves in brutal conditions for low pay, or that they’re beholden to their employer both as their landlord and their boss, though these are often true. This isn’t hyperbole. In the last 14 years, federal officials have handed down seven slavery convictions in Florida alone, freeing over 1,100 slaves.

While undocumented workers often receive lower wages and fewer legal protections than those with legal visas, abuses are not limited to workers without authorized immigration status. One recent Florida slavery case indicted three people for holding fifty Haitians in the United States on guestworker visas issued through the Department of Labor’s H2A program. The slaveholders confiscated their passports and visas and held them against their will.

A recent report by Farmworker Justice shows how the legal structure of the H2A guestworker program invites abuse. Employers hire recruiting agents to go to countries like Mexico and Haiti to find crews of workers. Many agents demand payment from workers for their H2A jobs, so workers come to the U.S. already in debt. Since the recruitment process takes place largely outside the US, the DOL does not exercise jurisdiction over it, even though the H2A program depends on the routine use of recruitment practices that would be illegal in this country and that have repeatedly led to human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

TAKE ACTION: Check out the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Anti-Slavery Campaign, then read up on the latest guestworker bills proposed in Congress, which would expand the guestworker program while slashing existing protections for workers. Write a letter to the editor of your campus or local newspaper demanding a fair guestworker program, like this one.


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12: the minimum age for child in the US to work in agriculture without parental supervision

In every other industry, the minimum age for employment is 14. Consider the following:

–“Federal laws permit a child aged 13 to work in 100-degree heat in a strawberry field, but do not permit that child to work in an air-conditioned office.”

–A 12-year-old child can legally work an unlimited number of hours in tobacco, absorbing up to 36 cigarettes-worth of nicotine in a single day, but cannot purchase a cigarette for another six years.

Photo courtesy of SAF

Why are child labor standards so much lower in agriculture than for other industries? The answer is economic. On the demand side, employers rely on children to minimize labor costs and sell goods at the lowest possible price. The agricultural industry consistently lobbies against any laws that try to increase the minimum employment age to 14. On the supply side, farmworker parents make the difficult decision to send their children to the fields because their own below-poverty wages are insufficient to sustain the family. The average annual income for a farmworker family is only $16,000.

The end result? Children who are “overworked and under spray” (check out this documentary by SAF intern Abigail Bissette). Children may begin legally working in the fields by age 10, though some start even younger. Many farmworker children work up to 30 hours a week, even while school is in session. Due to long hours in the fields and frequent moves, half of migrant farmworker children never have the chance to finish high school.

Child farmworkers are also routinely exposed to high temperatures and toxic chemicals that may cause long-term health consequences, and they suffer fatalities at four times the rate of children in other industries. A young farmworker from the documentary Overworked and Under Spray recounts:

“When I was fourteen, I was working in the tobacco field, and there was a field right next to us that the tractor was spraying pesticides on…I started to feel lightheaded and dizzy, until I fell… after that, when I had gotten home, I just wanted to lay down, but every time I closed my eyes, I felt like I was spinning.”

Child labor laws are rooted in the belief that all children deserve to learn and develop in a safe, supportive environment. However, farmworker children have been the exception to the rule ever since the first child labor laws were passed in 1938.

It’s about time we put our foot down and changed the law – and we hope you’ll join us.

TAKE ACTION: Encourage Congress to pass the CARE Act which would ensure that children who work in agriculture have the SAME protections as children in every other industry.


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