A farmer said, "Father, farmers get a bad rap..." A union organizer said, "Migrant workers get a bad rap..." An OSHA representative said, "We get a bad rap from both the farmer and the worker..." Good people in all walks of life have suffered from the "bad rap." Exploitation and inappropriate activities by a few make life hard for those striving to do good in their lives. Scandalous activities in all walks of life makes for interesting newscasts and provide material for the loud voices of
anger and discord in society, but prejudices formed by a lot of exaggeration and misunderstanding hurt all good people in every walk of life.
My ministry in agriculture has introduced me to many wholesome, good people working in all aspects of agriculture. There are many complexities to the agricultural world that casual observers will not see. There are problems in the distribution of wealth, use of land, water, pesticides and chemicals, delivery of product to markets, price margins, safety, regulations and immigration. Often adversarial roles are taken in addressing these issues. Good people become stereotyped and solutions are hard to find.
Those who exploit, abuse and mistreat the person, the land and the market dominate the news and politics. A healthy agriculture is only achieved in an environment of mutual respect and cooperation between the employer, the worker and healthy administration of policies that protect the land, the worker, the owner and the consumer. Civil communication between workers, owners and government are necessary for society. The role of churches in all of this is to facilitate and encourage that communication.
"Bad Rap" for Workers
When "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" was proposed under the authorship of Senators McCain and Kennedy in 2005 and 2006, much of the anti-immigrant media called the migrant workers "unskilled," "undocumented" and "taking away American jobs." At that time I remember speaking with farm owners very concerned that the rhetoric would deprive them of quality workers to harvest their crops. One owner of a cherry orchard stood out when I sat in his office, every time he spoke of his workers he called them his "skilled agricultural workers." With praise and appreciation he spoke of the workers as his partners in bringing fruit to the market. He was offended when people call our migrants "unskilled labor."
Agricultural work is highly skilled, it is a trade. Skills are needed and developed. A beginning worker learns how to handle the crop, move in the field for efficient work, use the equipment and develop speed and efficiency in the harvest. A fruit worker only has a couple days to attain a speed of harvesting to make "minimum wage." Yet it is not just speed in the harvest that one develops. Fruit must be picked for the market, so a worker learns how to pick the fruit without bruising or damaging the crop. With trees and vines, the breaking of branches and striping of bark from trees can endanger the future production, so skill must be acquired to harvest the fruit rapidly with little damage to the plant.
While the work is difficult and farm workers experience very difficult working conditions, from heat to cold, uncertain hour of work, insecurity due to conditions of crops and the overwhelming shadow of immigration problems, workers take pleasure in a successful harvest. When they go home, their concerns are for their family. Certainly there are problems because of loneliness, separation from families and the temptations of alcohol and other concerns. But, the farm workers deserve respect by communities that often take them for granted.
"Bad Rap" for farmers
My friend who complained about the "bad rap" for farmers expressed the frustration of being portrayed by many as not caring about the workers, their safety and the environment. Many farmers see their workers as partners in the industry of agriculture, appreciating each ones role in bringing food and goods to the market.
Farmers face unfair markets, soaring fuel costs and poorly construed rules and regulations that produce more burden than effective gains in employee and consumer benefits. One of the hardest aspects for the farmer is the inability to develop a consistent crew of workers for their fields and harvests. The primary problem in this is the lack of immigration reform. The skilled workforce in agriculture is largely undocumented and government attempts at providing for workers with H 2A and other guest workers models has been greatly flawed as the political will to address the problem has been lacking in Congress for over twenty years.
Working for and with both farmers and workers
The challenge of Church ministry is to provide grace and care to all people involved in agriculture. I fear that some of my friends in advocacy for workers rights and protections may be uncomfortable with what I have to say. We need to develop a ministry that works with farmers and farm workers, with owners and unions, with advocacy groups and with government agencies.
Too often these groups confront each other as adversaries. A history of distrust and manipulation creates a great obstacle to improving the lives of those most vulnerable in society. Negotiations have not always been reasonable or responsible. Violence and intimidation have marred negotiations, and even religious leaders have failed in charity to one side or the other. The Church needs to strive to bring these groups together, because the farmer needs the worker and the worker needs the employer. It cannot be an either-or ministry.
Farmers need to be reminded that the Church has a moral obligation to place a preference for the poor and those unprotected by society and forces that may abuse power. The answer to the question in Genesis, "Am I my brother's keeper?" is "Yes." Unfortunately that is often not the way of economics, the markets and political will. While the Church may not be able to effectively change the political realities that afflict our farm workers, we can minister to those involved in agriculture striving to build a communication that allows workers and farmers to enter into respectful dialogue.
Finding common ground
There will always be tension between employer and workers as negotiation of contracts, salaries and worker conditions take place. There is a need to find common ground on issues that should not divide people. No one wants an unsafe workplace. No one wants abusive practices that deny people rights and dignity. Yet people need clarity of vision and willingness to meet others on the way to resolving what divides. We are "one body united in faith." We need to call people to treat each other with dignity and respect.
Father Mike McAndrew is the Director of Campesino Ministry for the Diocese of Fresno, Calif.
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