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A Workforce Action Plan for Farm Labor in California

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In order to develop a vision and strategic plan for improved farm labor conditions in California, Roots of Change and The California Endowment funded a collaborative effort to obtain direct feedback from agricultural workers and growers to develop a vision for more sustainable farmlabor conditions in California and to identify short- and long-term strategies for achieving that vision. Published in 2007, the results of that study still resonate.

Five grassroots organizations with diverse and longstanding ties to the agricultural community –California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, California Institute for Rural Studies, CommunityAlliance with Family Farmers, the Farmworker Institute for Education and LeadershipDevelopment and Ag Innovations Network – convened a series of meetings including growers and agricultural workers in five of California’s principal agricultural regions: Monterey, Yolo, Merced,Tulare and Ventura Counties.

The resulting report presents a synthesis of the vision and strategies for promoting a more sustainable farm labor system in California, as put forth by the participants.

Envisioning a more sustainable food system is often associated with images of a world in whichfamily farmers using environmentally friendly farming practices are able to support themselves and contribute to vibrant rural communities, while providing all residents with access to fresh,healthy and culturally appropriate food.

Nonetheless, an essential, yet often overlooked component of a more sustainable food system is the ability to provide food system workers – the individuals that produce, harvest, process, deliver, prepare and sell our food – with safe and dignified working conditions, a decent standard of living and the right to live and work legally in this country.

Despite the fact that agricultural workers perform what is arguably the most important job in the US – producing the food that feeds us – they have historically suffered from low wages, harsh and dangerous working conditions, lack of access to health care, substandard housing and a lackof legal status in the US. These conditions are clearly not compatible with the goals of a more sustainable food system.

The common vision emerging from these convenings is one of a California food system in which farmworkers are recognized as skilled professionals who are treated with respect and are fairly compensated for their vital role in supporting California’s $32 billion agricultural economy and feeding consumers throughout California, the United States and the world. The vision is one in which farmworkers and accompanying family members are able to live and work in the United States legally and where they receive a living wage, year-round employment, access to healthcare and other benefits, safe working conditions and access to safe and affordable housing. Agricultural workers would be valued for their opinions and contributions and would be recognized as a valuable resource to farm operations. There would be opportunities for professional development and a career ladder for advancement and upward mobility within agriculture. Agriculture would be a career that agricultural workers’ children might aspire to.

Priority elements of this vision and strategies for achieving that include the following:

1. Living Wage. A living wage was the most common priority issue raised by farmworkers in the convenings. That vision can be achieved via a combination of production and market based strategies. Production-based strategies include more year-round employment through labor-sharing mechanisms, crop diversification, promotion of more labor intensive sustainable agricultural methods and cross-training for work in non-agricultural sectors. Market-based strategies include the promotion of fair trade labels and supplier codes of conduct providing price premiums and/or preferences for growers offering fair wages and good farm labor conditions, encouraging consumers to support farms that are unionized and policies addressing issues such as globalization and concentration that keep farmers from receiving a fair price for their product. Providing farmworkers with legal status in the US will also allow for more direct hire by growers and a reduction in low wages and other forms of abuse typically associated with farm labor contractors.

2. Legal status. The ability for farmworkers to live and work in the United States legally is a fundamental aspect of a more sustainable farm labor system in the US. At a minimum, legalization would include the ability to cross borders freely, a US driver’s license,unemployment insurance and future access to entitlements such as Social Security and Medi-Cal. Opportunities for long-term residence and citizenship should be included in immigration reform proposals. In the long-term, efforts to promote legal status among farmworkers shouldinclude a North (or Pan) American Union modeled along the lines of the European Union, in which all residents of North Americas would have the right to work and travel freely.

3. Access to health care. Improved access to health care is an essential aspect of improved farmworker conditions. That can be achieved via a number of strategies, including tax credits for growers offering health insurance, seeking lower health insurance by pooling resources,promoting increased binational US-Mexico coverage and expanding the pool of culturally competent health care providers serving farmworkers in the US. In the long-term, universal health care should be adopted and be available to all residents, regardless of documentation status.

4. Worker health and safety. Safe working conditions are a vital component of a more sustainable food system. Occupational safety and health (OSH) for farmworkers can be improved through a number of mechanisms, including increased enforcement of existing laws and regulations, improved OSH training for farmworkers, reduced use of piece rate payment mechanisms to encourage slower work, increased funding for research to improve ergonomic conditions in agriculture, canopies for heat protection, reduced use of pesticides and the elimination of class I and II pesticides.

5. Healthy Agricultural Communities. Given that many farmworkers are long-term permanent residents of California, the need to promote healthy agricultural communities is strong. Strategies for doing so include increased investments in farmworker housing, the promotion of community safety, the establishment of community centers providing social services and recreational activities and promoting increased civic engagement and community organizing activities among farmworkers.

6. Reduced Immigration via Economic Development in Mexico and Central America. Most farmworkers come to the United States out of economic necessity. Their preference is not to leave their homes, families and countries of origin. Increased economic development and the creation of meaningful employment opportunities in Mexico and Central America will stem the tide of migration and stop tearing families and communities apart. Reduced migration will also eliminate gluts in the farm labor market and will no doubt result in improved conditions as agriculture seeks to attract and retain workers. In the long-term, the eliminationof NAFTA and CAFTA will contribute to healthier economies, particularly in rural and agrarian regions of Mexico and Central America, which have suffered greatly from unequal competition with US agriculture.

 

For more detail on this work, go to: Current Publications on the CIRS website and download the full report.

 

Authors: Martha Guzman, David Runsten, Ron Strochlic, Juan Garza, jomeph McIntyre, Nicole Mason

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