The views expressed in this article are based on perspective and anecdote – they do not reflect the position of AFOP Health & Safety or of the farm mentioned.
After the dry (see last week’s post) I ended up in a very different world. Here the leafy abundance of the rainforest farm often swallowed me as I stooped to lift branches with a long blade, hyper-sensitive to the vipers which wrapped themselves in the short trees. Across the rolling fields at the foot of the volcano, we called out like birds to find our fellow workers: too deep in foliage to see from one intercalated row to the next. To bring life we had to fight off life; over just one black night it seemed the vines could choke a whole row of coffee, and the wild grass could stretch to our knees again. With rubber boots we sunk into fields which had never seen chemicals to extract diseased cacao pods and cull leafy branches. The rewards were sweet. Fat pineapples and guanabanas and oranges dripped from their plants, and my arms strained behind wheelbarrow loads far too large for our farm family: myself and 3 other workers, the owner, and the manager.
At the AFOP office in D.C. our focus often must be in the harshest realities of farm labor. It’s our job, after all; our trainings are the solutions to problems. Problems like heat stroke in the fields, exposure to toxic pesticides, child labor, equipment hazards, wage theft, lack of benefits. We exist to advocate for the foreign-born migrant labor force working in the massive industrial-scale farms which grind out the stockpiles of food in your neighborhood supermarket. If we and our colleagues don’t, it has been demonstrated, no one will.
“They have it good here.”
Call me cynical, but it wasn’t a phrase I expected to hear in regard to farm employment here in the Costa Rican rainforest, so close to the northern border clear days saw the wide rim of Lake Nicaragua. She – the speaker, and owner of the farm I was volunteering on these short weeks – was referring to the state of the full-time farm employees.
It seemed a common and inspiring theme that workers in Costa Rica were well cared-for. Despite peaceful protests – “always over by lunch” – from various members of the public sector, it was generally agreed upon that Costa Rica took care of its labor force. Minimum wage was livable, and benefits always included health care. Every worker received a bonus equivalent to one month’s pay each December, and if fired would still be paid for between several months to a year afterwards at salary rate – depending on the amount of time they had been at the job. Securing a job at the small organic farm I was currently on seemed like a sweet deal; in sharp contrast to conventional farms, here we were exposed to no chemical pesticides. On top of that, here full-timers received enough in benefits that the owner ended up shelling out almost double their actual pay rate to keep her employees healthy and well.
That’s not always easy for the private owners, but Costa Rica’s unique history of scrapping their army and moving the funds to education and health has long kept the country progressive with social and public services which favor the worker. Famous for dedicated conservation practices and sky-high literacy rates (5% higher than the United States), Costa Rica’s workers seemed to receive the benefits hard workers are due. Great news for officially employed Costa Ricans.
For migrant laborers? The picture didn’t seem so clear. To put it bluntly: just as the U.S. has Mexico and Argentina has Bolivia, Costa Rica has Nicaragua. Drawn by the security and higher wages of the booming coffee and chocolate industries in Costa Rica, it seems the “Nicas” are often the ones taking on the toughest farm jobs for the lowest return. In the north, nearest to the Nicaraguan border, racism against the incoming laborers was palpable; though peaceable, there was no mistaking the attitude of superior versus inferior. I myself, as an import from the United States, was more likely to be treated with curious amusement than as a threat to Costa Rican job security.
Throughout the weeks here, and the previous months on an Argentine farm, could I call myself a migrant farmworker? In the strictest sense, perhaps; in reality, I would never. When beginning as the program coordinator at AFOP Health & Safety, I wanted to be able to truly empathize with the rough world faced by today’s migrant farmworkers. I wanted to say that my hands had been callused in the fields and that I had earned my meal; I wanted our workers to trust that I understood; I wanted to practice what I preached. But the work I chose – as a voluntary and temporary migrant – is nowhere near the reality of the true migrant farm labor force.
Stopping for a breath at the end of a 40-plant row, I thought, “what if the rows were 500 plants long?”
Retiring to my quiet tent at the end of a long day, I thought, “what if I had no privacy?”
Working my way along the cacao scattered with tall citrus trees, I thought, “what if there was no shade?”
Above all, as I flashed my passport and settled back into an airplane seat that would return me home, I thought, “what if this wasn’t a choice?”
Thank you to the beautiful farm that hosted me as a worker and as part of the family. You know who you are.