Friday, October 7, 2011

Farmville (Part III): Fruits of labor

Last week, our class we watched the documentary, "Morristown: In the Air and Sun." The documentary loosely presented neutral story lines: a factory outsourcing its jobs to Maquiladoras in Mexico; Mexican immigrants crossing the border into America; and the struggles these workers face. Some of the workers at the plant described how they worked in a factory fourteen hours a day without breaks or safety attire. The movie ended with the workers agreeing to unionize and achieve better working conditions.

I found the movie very intriguing because the stories of the factory workers' deplorable working conditions and lack of pay are much different than the experiences of workers on our ranch. Farm labor is very hard work. A typical harvest day is depicted here. Our farm workers are not members of a union; however, California residents have all benefited from the worker's rights movement.

The worker's rights movement picked up steam in the 1960's. Caesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association. The Association provided support to farm workers and notified them of pending lawsuits in Northern California. A copy of the Association's newsletter can be found here. The Association later became the United Farm Workers Association (UFW). Over the years, the UFW has organized strikes to protest for higher wages, lobbied for worker's rights bills, and provided a voice to the farm worker. Through the hard work of the UFW, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act was passed. The act establishes collective bargaining for farm workers in California, something not provided in federal law.

One would think that since the workers rights movement was in the 1960's, many agricultural labor issues would be resolved. However, it seems that farm workers are more marginalized than ever. Movement of farm workers, lack of knowledge of available legal aid, and fear inhibit many farm workers from reporting unsafe working conditions and low wages.

In Morristown, the workers lived and worked in the same factory town all year long. Such permanent residency makes it easier to form unions, because turnover among workers is lower and permanent offices can be established. Since a high majority of farm workers work seasonally and travel year round, it is hard to keep track of union members and their specific needs. In Yuba City, we have the Western Farm Workers Association. In a telephone interview, the association informed me they won a legal battle last year, receiving a $300,000 award to be distributed to the farm workers involved in the lawsuit. However, the association is having a difficult time finding the farm workers, as they have likely moved on to a subsequent harvest.

A second issue hindering farm workers from receiving the benefits of unionizing and reporting poor working conditions is lack of knowledge of available legal resources. Even though farm workers have fought for better pay and working conditions in California since the 1960's, the Western Farm Workers Association informed me that many farm workers do not know when the law is on their side. The federal Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act aims, "To assure necessary protections for migrant and seasonal agricultural workers, agricultural associations, and agricultural employers." 29 U.S.C.A. § 1801 (West). Specifically, the act requires employers to pay workers' wages prescribed by federal, state, and local regulation. Doe v. D.M. Camp & Sons, 624 F. Supp. 2d 1153 (E.D. Cal 2008).

Even if the farm workers understand the law protects them, fear is a third issue that impedes farm workers from unionizing. Like the workers in the documentary Morristown, many of the farm workers in my hometown are undocumented. This past week, I interviewed one of our workers, Marta. Marta informed me that fear of deportation stops many farm workers from reporting bad working conditions and low wages. She also stated that workers do not trust the legal community because lawyers have a hand in the deportation process.

As a farmer's daughter and future lawyer, I find these problems very disconcerting. It is upsetting to know that almost forty years after Caesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta started the National Farm Workers Association, fear still paralyzes many farm workers, preventing them from reporting low wages and deplorable working conditions. While legal resources are available and the UFW has national name recognition, perhaps more of a grass roots campaign is needed to inform workers of their rights. How can the legal community more effectively reach the migrant farm workers?

Another blog post about unionizing and farm workers can be found here


Namora said...

I think it is important for legal organizations to visit farms, especially in isolated areas--where it is hard for farm-workers to network with other people in their community. Given language and geographic barriers, it is important for legal workers to work harder to inform farm-workers of their rights. Hopefully the word will spread.

princesspeach said...

Do you think this is something lawyers should do on their own? Such as use their Pro Bono hours? I think something permanent needs to be put into place in order to better assist farm workers. On our ranch we have a contractor who brings us workers during harvest. The contractor we have does a know your rights presentation. Perhaps the best way for farm workers to know their legal options is for the contractors to inform them. Since one of the workers on my farm informed me of the lack of trust in the legal field, this might be a viable option.

Courtney Taylor said...

As you point out, fear is something that prevents farm workers from organizing or reporting working poor conditions. I think the power of this fear, however, is often underestimated. A worker can understand what they are legally entitled to, but there is such distrust for "the government" they are afraid to ask for it.

Although this doesn't completely solve the problem, agencies like Cal/OSHA have reporting processes where workers can report violations anonymously. I've seen this done at local farms in the past and it works. A worker calls and Cal/OSHA shows up unannounced, almost always citing the farm for the violation.