Modern Day Indentured Servitude

Food! It’s something none of us can live without. Most of us eat two to three times a day, yet never give a thought to where our food comes from. We might start to look at our meals differently if we had a little insight into the human labor that it takes to get that food to our tables.

Farmworker Awareness Week has been going on this past week from March 24 and will continue to 31. This is an opportunity to raise awareness and ultimately appreciation for the lives and work of the men, women and children that are harvesting the food we eat. Farmworkers plant and harvest fruits and vegetables, as well as work in ferneries, nurseries and other agricultural industries. Farmworkers are excluded from labor laws that cover most all other workers in the country. There is even less enforcement of the few laws that do exist. As a result, farmworkers are frequently victims of a system that keeps them in poverty and often powerless.

Possibly the most challenging aspect of farm work is the conditions in which it is performed. Farmworkers are often forced to work from sun-up to sundown in extreme weather conditions. While working for hours in extreme heat, they can also be subjected to harsh chemicals. Pesticides are regularly sprayed on plants and sometimes on the farmworkers themselves. Exposure to these chemicals can cause lasting health problems for many farmworkers and their children. Because many of our nation’s farmworkers are from minority ethnicities, language barriers, discrimination, and lack of awareness of rights contribute to farmworkers not seeking justice for themselves. Many farmworkers are also working in our nation without documentation and fear the consequences of conflict with their employer. Other farmworkers live in poverty and fear of being without work if they take a stand against unfair working conditions.

Some growers utilize the H2A or ‘guest-worker’ program and in some cases, these contracts can be similar to indentured servitude. Citrus and vegetable crops are among those that have utilized H2A workers. Other workers are victims of human trafficking, relying on “coyotes” to bring them to the U.S. for jobs in agriculture for which they may owe their first few months or year’s wages to the trafficker. In extreme cases, farmworkers have been subjected to conditions of modern day slavery. In Florida, several of these cases have been exposed in areas such as Immokalee and Hastings.

The current situation for farmworkers is unjust and must be challenged. Farmworker Awareness Week is the last week in March to commemorate Cesar Chavez’s birthday and to work to continue the change he pursued. In the late 1960s, Cesar Chavez, a farmworker, rallied against the unjust conditions for farmworkers in California. Raising the community’s awareness, unionizing farmworkers, and nonviolently protesting outrageous treatment forced growers to bargain with the United Farm Workers union. This work was a major turning point for farmworker rights and has inspired many other organizations throughout the country. However, there is still a lot of change that must happen for farmworkers.

The 2013 Rollins Farmworker Awareness Week has had many informative events on campus. Starting with a screening of the work-in-progress film, Food Chains March 25, followed by a Q&A session with Sanjay Rawal, the director, and Jeannie Economos, the Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Project Coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida. This screening was sponsored by the Thomas P. Johnson Visiting Artist Fund and the Department of Critical Media.

On March 27 WPRK hosted the show Front Porch Radio with Julie Norris. A discussion with more depth about farmworker issues was held with representatives from the Farmworker Association of Florida and YAYA (Youth and Young Adult Network of National Farm Worker Ministry). Following the radio show on there was a screening of Viva La Causa, a short documentary about Cesar Chavez’ work, followed by a brief Q&A as well. March 28 will be the final day of the Rollins 2013 Farmworker Awareness Week. At 4 p.m., a screening of the film Harvest of Dignity will be held in the SunTrust Auditorium. This film reflects the current conditions of farmworkers in response to the Edward R. Murrow film, Harvest of Shame made over 50 years ago.

There will also be a display in the Olin Library recognizing the sexual harassment female farmworkers face. The Bandana Project allows women to artistically display their feelings toward the harassment they experience. This artistic display is empowering for the women because they are bringing awareness to those who view the art and contributing to the change for farmworker and women’s rights violations.

Please visit Facebook.com/RollinsFAW for more information on these events.

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