Black History Month (now deemed African American History Month) is an opportunity to reflect on and pay tribute to the generations of African Americans who fought adversity and continue to do so to achieve full citizenship in today’s society. Though February is over, it would be remiss of me not to talk about race relations in the context of agriculture and farmworkers.
Even in the best of circumstances, it is difficult for farmworkers to advocate on their own behalf. Be it a violation of one’s labor rights, poor living conditions, stolen wages, inhumane working conditions, etc., farmworkers who speak out against injustice run the risk of being immediately terminated or of losing work in the ensuing season. This is why, so many times, farmworkers opt instead to keep their heads down and keep working, even though it means bearing the full weight of that injustice and degradation.
Though this common history of maltreatment has the potential to connect and unite farmworkers, all too often it works to divide and exclude them, based on false cultural and ethnic tropes. For example, farmworkers are really hard workers. But the fact that they must persist through pain and carry out hazardous tasks – without complaint or show of emotion – lest they get fired or blacklisted, results in a false cultural trope of invincibility. Many in the farmworker community have even embraced this as a point of pride. “We do the work no one else is willing to do,” some say, maybe mentioning how farmworkers never take a day off or call in sick, not stopping to think that this kind of messaging can actually work against farmworkers in the long run (making them seem like America’s willing workhorse).
Now let’s delve a little deeper into these misbeliefs when they become entwined with the different nationalities of farmworkers. Different levels of language comprehension, for example, can result in entire groups of people getting labeled as preferable, which can then lead to discrimination in favor of the opposite group. For example, English-speakers without permanent legal status might be preferred by some growers, since growers or contractors can communicate easily with them and yet feel confident that they won’t get out of line because of not wanting to jeopardize their work visa.
Conversely, sometimes non-English speakers are preferred, because their lack of language comprehension makes them easier to intimidate and less likely to fight back (particularly when combined with a tenuous immigration status). Plus, the farmworker may not be able to prove an employer’s willful omission of vital information, nor understand their rights as workers in the United States.
Depending on the crop, a particular nationality may be considered a “better” workforce, usually loosely based on experience colored by false beliefs. Many times, it may be the only job opportunity afforded to that particular group of workers and so they become pigeonholed in that specific crop. That’s not to say you don’t find nationalities picking certain crops, but it is hard to find them commingling. For example, crews may be segregated by language, country of origin, or race because of the perception of how easy it may be for those workers to interact and work together. Anecdotally, we have seen crews like this during site visits to New Jersey, Arkansas, and Florida.
Whether intentional or not, these kinds of stereotypes create a hierarchy amongst farmworkers by nationality, age, language comprehension, and knowledge of the laws – thus dividing a group of workers that has a shared experience of isolation, exploitation, and prejudice. For all intents and purposes, farmworkers as a whole would benefit from building alliances and strengthening bonds amongst one another, which is why so much is done to try to separate them.
So let’s move beyond these culturally-constructed identities, cross those invisible lines, and talk about our commonalities. Let’s stand side by side and lead the charge as a collective because, as Martin Luther King Jr. so aptly stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The fight belongs to us all and, if we stand up for one another, there is no tearing us apart.
AFOP Health & Safety works to secure the well-being and security of farmworkers, regardless of race, ethnicity, language comprehension, background, etc. When we create opportunities for farmworkers to receive the training and education that they need to succeed at what they do, everyone benefits: the farmworker, the farmer, AND the consumer. Read more about our National Farmworker Training Program here.