Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Emerging South

Most people tend to think of the Southern United States in terms of black and white, but the South also has a significant number of Asians and Hispanics. Migrant workers who play a key role in providing America’s food are scattered throughout the country, and there are around 400,000 undocumented immigrant workers living and working in North Carolina. Unfortunately, the living and working conditions of migrant workers are far from ideal. The ways in which migrant workers live are akin to those of people in an impoverished third world country. It is difficult to believe that such abuse takes place in a country that bases its main ideologies on the concept of freedom. Although slavery was abolished in 1865, unfair labor conditions still exist today. In fact, there have been documented cases of slavery recently. In particular, slavery has been a problem in Florida’s fields. For those interested, go to http://www.dissidentvoice.org/2008/03/ending-slavery-and-sweatshops-in-floridas-fields for Elias Lawless’ article “Ending Slavery and Sweatshops in Florida’s Fields”.

Sadly, as revealed in the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s “The Story of FLOC”, the average life expectancy of a migrant worker in the United States is a mere 49 years. Many migrant workers and their families suffer are plagued by infectious and chronic diseases in addition to malnutrition. Infant and maternal mortality rates are much higher than the national average, and countless migrant workers and their children are forced to live in cramped huts without running water. Because farmworkers are oftentimes paid by the agricultural corporations according to a “piece” rate (ex. a set price for a basket of tomatoes, strawberries, etc.), they are not subject to laws regarding minimum wage. Although I knew that farmworkers received unfair wages, I was surprised to learn that they may receive less than 1 percent of the price that consumers pay for the foods that they helped to provide. I was also horrified to learn that if migrant and H2A workers complain of ill treatment or unjust conditions, they face either being blacklisted from future employment.

Urbano Ramirez’s story was heartbreaking to me. It’s terrible to think that it took people two weeks to even find Urbano’s dead body under the tree, and the people who found the body were not even the supervisors; they were Urbano’s co-workers. Sadly, Urbano was not the only worker to die of heatstroke in 2006; 4 others also died. I really feel for Urbano’s and the other workers’ families. All of this just goes to show how inhumane the conditions that they had to work under were. Personally, I feel that the agribusinesses and supervisors are responsible for the deaths.

Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC’s founder, has worked throughout the years to provide hope for impoverished farmworkers by encouraging them to fight for their basic rights and to recognize their dignity as human beings. I think that it is important for workers to be able to have the right to play a role in making decisions that ultimately affect them. I found it ridiculous although not surprising that Campbell Soup Company lied about not employing farmworkers when in fact they were. Fortunately, Velasquez and others spoke out against Campbell’s and took action. It was uplifting to read that farmworkers, not lawyers or politicians, eliminated the sharecropping system by 1988. This demonstrates that people have the power to make societal changes. As the article says, “History shows that those who wait for others to give them their rights rarely get them. It is those who take a stand for their own rights who see their potentials realized.” The FLOC has bettered the lives of many migrant workers not by sitting back but by actively seeking to change the world.

As a nation, we need to find ways in which we can provide ourselves with food without taking advantage of migrant workers. Some possible strategies, as outlined by the FLOC article, include extending the same legal rights given to other American workers to farmworkers. Agribusinesses can also give some of their benefits to basic production workers.


How much importance do you give to finding ways in which to better the lives of migrant workers?

What can we do to support the FLOC campaign? In what concrete ways can we help FLOC achieve justice for migrant workers and how can we get others involved in the effort?

What is your role in the system that is responsible for the invisibility, abuse, and exploitation suffered by immigrant workers? What are some ways in which you can change your role and work for bettering the lives of migrant workers?

What changes need to take place in our social and economic structures to ensure that migrant farmworkers are treated with respect?

What specific issues regarding migrant workers have you heard of recently or have been following? How do you feel about them? What do you think you can do?


awolf said...

I was glad when we were assigned this reading in class because this is one issue that I feel I am not that educated in. After reading this article, I want to become more educated about where my food comes from. I want to learn about other alternatives, maybe locally. I do not want to support these companies who are basically using slave labor, since they are paying their workers almost nothing and putting them in extremely harmful conditions. I think that this issue has not made the forefront in our newspapers because it seems to be an, ‘out of sight out of mind’ sort of complex. We buy our food from the grocery store and many of us do not think about where it comes from because to us it comes from “Safeway,” or “Trader Joes,” or any other grocery store. I took a trip to Southern California about a month ago and as we passed central valley I saw people actually working the land and I really began to wonder about the life of a farmer. People who farm the land for us are the people supplying our food and we need to start taking action and learn about where our delicious orange comes from. We need to put pressure on companies to change conditions because this issue does not only affect our farm workers this issue affects all of us and we need to become educated so we can all make a difference.

Tali Wolf

ylimeucsc said...

I was really moved by the quote that you mentioned in your essay, “History shows that those who wait for others to give them their rights rarely get them. It is those who take a stand for their own rights who see their potentials realized.”
I really liked this idea of potential because in every single reading about unions and especially in the miners strike that took place in the movie we saw in class, it is only when people recognize that they should have these rights are any social changes able to get done. In the movie there is one point where they are assigning a new leader among the women, and that woman was the one who smoked a lot. She said something like, “ I ain’t here to talk about no man, if your messin with my man you can have him, I am here to get these miners rights.” She was empowered by the ability to cause change, and by the fact that she was entitled to more than what she was getting.
If we were to think about what had most likely occurred in her life, it wouldn’t be something that one can look back on as impacting social conditions. I think in the film they mention that much of the community didn’t have access to education through high school, and we saw that girl who was married and pregnant at 15 and completely accepted by the community as a normal occurrence. People weren’t expected to do much but mine and raise families, so this gave them a reason to unite, and a purpose. That women when everyone is clapping for her, has this shy but confident smile at the end, you can see how empowered and proud she feels.

Mia R said...

I was glad as well when this reading was assigned because as you said many people only think of the south and black and white, as well as labor struggles only affecting white miners. This article gave great insight into a whole undercover world of immigrant labor struggles that very rarely gets any attention outside of California.
Tali was also completely in the right when she said her theory about "out of side out of mind" because if one does not have to witness firsthand the process by which the things they use in their daily life are manufactured. It is along the same lines of the complex of not really caring about where their clothes come from if they haven't seen any real images of sweatshops.
This complex demonstrates the necessity of raising awareness about supporting unions which is why literature like this should be made more well known.

Jean Strandberg said...

Though I agree with you that growers/agricultural producers should take responsibility for their treatment of workers, I would put the majority of the blame for the farmworker's death discussed in the FLOC reading somewhere else. I think that the majority of the blame lies in the lack of regulations in labor and production of the agricultural sector and the U.S. immigration policy. Even the regulations and laws that do exist to protect workers can often not be enforced due to the existence of a highly exploitable/ vulnerable undocumented workforce. In order to stop incidents like the one i the FLOC reading from happening, we must change immigration policy in the US (as well as US foreign policy that pushes immigration to the US), so that workers can access their rights without the fear of deportation.