Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and inpleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. James 5:4-5
Farm Workers Seek Justice
Just as in New Testament times, farm workers in the U.S. today confront injustices in the fields. They labor under difficult, unhealthy, and even dangerous conditions. Wages are low. Workplace protections are weak and poorly enforced, and penalties for violations are pitifully small. Farm workers are not covered by many of the federal laws that protect most other workers. Housing, whether provided by growers or available for rent by farm workers, is frequently substandard. Child labor laws are often ignored.
Being a disciple of Christ means that Jesus' values must govern our lives including our decisions about purchasing and investing. We witness to our faith when we use our purchasing power to encourage companies to treat workers fairly. Investors bear witness to their faith when they call a company to account for unethical practices. The reign of God does not stop at the door of the factory, edge of the field, or entrance to the store. People of faith strive to be faithful witnesses in the marketplace.
Our Faith Calls Us to Stand with Farm Workers, a short resource linking our faith to justice for farm workers.
Just 13, and Working Risky 12-Hour Shifts in the Tobacco Fields by Steven Greenhouse, New York Times, Sept. 6, 2014. Low wages paid to their parents and completely inadequate legal protection mean children work in N. Carolina's hazardous tobacco fields.
Protecting immigrant farm workers, an article in the Miami Herald (March 13, 2013) written by Prof. Cindy Hahamovitch, an historian at the College of William and Mary, reveals the abuses that have been present throughout the history of agricultural guestworker programs.
A State of Fear: Human Rights Abuses in North Carolina's Tobacco Industry. This investigation calls for a fundamental restructuring of the exploitative industrial structure that denies tobacco farm workers thire most basic rights.
New Report Outlines Abuses Faced by Farmworkers. In a unique for-profit/NGO joint venture, the Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation and United Farm Workers of America, with support from Oxfam America, released a groundbreaking report on March 31, César Chávez Day. The Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States compiles and analyzes data from multiple federal, state, and private sources to give the most comprehensive picture yet of the reality faced by America’s least-valued but critically important workforce. The report is the first of its kind to detail the lack of laws and protections for crop farmworkers in the U.S." -- from the report's press release
Justice in the Tobacco Fields of North Carolina
Tobacco fields are especially hazardous for farm workers. In addition to the usual hardships of low pay, pesticide exposure, and harsh conditions, workers also suffer from green tobacco sickness, an illness caused by nicotine they absorb through their skin. The workers' union, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), is seeking a way to address the workers' concerns.
R.J.Reynolds is the second largest tobacco company in the U.S. FLOC wants to work with Reynolds to address the problems farm workers face in the tobacco fields.
R.J. Reynolds employs no farm workers. But this does not remove the company's responsibility for the farm workers who produce its tobacco. RJR contracts with farmers to grow tobacco and specifies in some detail how the tobacco is to be grown. RJR has great power. If growers don’t agree to its specifics, RJR won’t buy their tobacco. Unfortunately, Reynolds is silent regarding labor practices. Just like in the global anti-sweatshop movement, consumers and others concerned with justice believe that large corporations have the opportunity, power, and obligation to require their suppliers (growers in this case) to operate in a just, humane, and sustainable manner. Put another way, RJR needs to assume responsibility for its supply chain. The company also needs to pay more to farmers for their tobacco so they can afford to pay more to farm workers.
For a number of years, Reynold's refused to speak with FLOC. But after six long years of prodding, in 2012, R. J. Reynolds finally agreed to talk with FLOC about conditions in the tobacco fields. Talks are ongoing.
Learn more and follow developments at www.floc.com, or connect with FLOC through social media. Supporters in North Carolina are especially needed. For more information or to volunteer, contact JWM's Edie Rasell.
Justice in Florida's tomato fields
Farm workers in southwest Florida, members of the organization the founded, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), have for years organized, demonstrated, and marched to improve wages and working conditions in the fields where they pick tomatoes. They have achieved many successes. Food giants Taco Bell, Burger King, MacDonald, Chipotle, Whole Foods, Sodexo, Trader Joe's, and other firms have agreed to improved conditions. But the major grocery chains are still mired in the old, exploitative ways. CIW and their allies continue to pressure fast food companies and supermarkets to join the Fair Food Program. Learn more including the latest developments on the CIW's webpage.
The CIW's Fair Food Program is a new approach, introducing social responsibility into the US produce industry. It combines the Fair Food Code of Conduct – a set of labor standards developed in a unique collaboration among farm workers, tomato growers, and the food industry leaders who purchase Florida tomatoes – with a small price premium (an increase of one penny per pound of tomatoes picked) to help improve harvesters’ wages. The goal of the Fair Food Program is to promote the development of a sustainable Florida tomato industry that advances both the human rights of farm workers and the long-term interests of Florida tomato growers.
However, supermarkets have not yet agreed to the price increase. With the notable exception of Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, major supermarket chains -- including Publix, Ahold, Kroger and Wal-Mart -- have yet to join the Fair Food Program. If the goal of a more modern, more humane Florida tomato industry is to be fully realized, the supermarket giants must do their part. As consumers, we can all play an important role in letting major supermarkets know that it is time to ensure fair wages and working conditions for the farm workers who pick their tomatoes.
Background: Since the mid-1990s, tomato pickers in southwest Florida have been seeking justice. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is seeking an additional penny per pound of tomatoes they pick (nearly doubling their wages after decades without a raise), plus improved conditions in the fields and a voice in their workplace. Since they began their struggle, numerous purchasers -- including Taco Bell, Burger King, A&W, Long John Silver, KFC, Subway, and McDonald -- have agreed to the pay the extra penny per pound, as well as to enforce a strict code of conduct to improve conditions in the fields, and give workers a voice in their workplace. The UCC, the first denomination to endorse the CIW's boycott of Taco Bell, was instrumental in getting national attention for the struggle
The National Farm Worker Ministry is a long-time partner with Justice and Witness Ministries. Their website has many good resources.
General Synod Marches in Support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, July 20, 2011
On Monday, July 4, 2011, over 400 people attending the UCC's General Synod in Tampa, FL., marched in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their efforts to improve pay and working conditions in the Florida tomato fields. See the UC News story and video (scroll down to Immokalee Workers March) and the story and photos from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has stuggled for over a decade to bring justice to the Florida tomato fields. Starting in the mid-1990s, farm workers engaged in talks, marches, and other measures to convince growers to pay tomato pickers a penny more per pound for the tomatoes they picked in the fields near Immokalee, Florida. In 2001, after these tactics had failed to bring the needed improvements, the Coalition called for a boycott of Taco Bell, one of the buyers of the tomatoes.
The United Church of Christ became the first denomination to endorse the boycott. In 2005, after much hard work by the farm workers and their allies, including many people in the UCC, Taco Bell agreed to the price increase and to negotiate with the workers over other working conditions. In addition, the other fast food chains owned by Taco Bell's parent company -- A&W, Pizza Hut, Long John Silvers, and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) -- also signed on. More work, including marches, letters, and educational forums, eventually convinced McDonalds, Subway, and other fast food restaurants to also pay the higher price. Now the struggle has turned to grocery stores. They also need to pay the additional penny per pound and sit down with the workers to address conditions in the field. The destination of the General Synod marchers was a Publix grocery store. Publix is a large grocery chain in Florida and is the current focus of the campaign for fair food. More info about the campaign.