Donations to the Long-Sleeve Relief project immediately go towards helping farmworkers. Information for donations of clothes and money can be found online at www.thefloridacatholic.org/lsr. You can also find out more at our GiveLively site, as shown above. For more information, visit https://secure.givelively.org/donate/florida-catholic-inc/long-sleeve-relief. (COURTESY)

Lend a hand, love thy neighbor and put a spotlight on farmworkers

ORLANDO  |  “Lend a helping hand,” is the common sentiment held by the entire team at the Association of Farmworkers Opportunity Programs (AFOP). The association’s employees honor the essential roles of America’s farmworkers that helps feed millions of American families since its establishment in 1971.

To show their appreciation, it created National Farmworker Awareness Week — March 25-31, 2020 — as a time dedicated to shedding light on the major contributions and injustices that farmworkers face on a daily basis. 

To further celebrate farmworkers across the country, the organization does what the Florida Catholic has done since 2005 — host a long-sleeve drive. A trio of AFOP’s top employees, all who are crucial to the longevity of the association and the well-being of millions of farmworkers in this country, spoke about why the National Long-Sleeve Shirt Drive exists, the inclusion of children in the fields, and the potential futures for a worker.

Struggles for a Farmworker

Being a migrant worker on an American farm — documented or undocumented — is a difficult road to travel. Never mind the physical hindrances, it is the never-ending paranoia farmworkers face from the uncertainty of holding down a job, as well as persecution from authorities. 

Kendra Moesle, programs communication coordinator at association, sympathizes with the struggles of America’s farmworkers. “They aren’t familiar with the legal system here,” she said, highlighting their primary setbacks as an outsider. “They have a language barrier.” Recourse for farmworkers to explain their troubles are mostly limited to hotlines where they can vent their frustrations to likely no avail. “They feel hopeless.”

This is partly due to the short-lived nature of farmwork. Farms are consistently replacing workers for newer, more obedient workers who refrain from complaining about their work conditions. 

Settling themselves and their families down in one area is unlikely for a farmworker. “They suffer from traveling from state to state, searching for a job,” said Melani Forti, health and safety programs director. Each time they relocate they must adapt to a new work culture in that state and of that particular farm owner. 

“You work during the season available,” she said, adding that working random odd jobs is necessary. When jumping around for work, the “children miss out because there isn’t any universal education. Kids miss out on certain topics that need to be covered to pass the state exams. They are being held back.”

Another problem Forti added was many “families may not be traveling together.” With just one parent around, “kids stay with their aunts or grandparents in their homes while their parents travel,” looking for work to save money.

However, picking vegetables is “often one of the lowest paid jobs (with reports coming in at an estimated $23,000 and as low as $10,000),” Moesle said. And because the vast majority of farmworkers are here as migrant workers only, they do not qualify for healthcare benefits. Fortunately, there are migrant clinics that provide the bare essentials of healthcare for the farmworkers. 

“Oftentimes,” Moesle added, “the people who work are really vulnerable. They are desperate for pay.” Farm recruiters venture out to Central and South American countries to offer monies in return for a job in the states. However, this sometimes doesn’t always work out peacefully. “They say, ‘hey we have this job for you,’” she said of a recruiter’s deceptive ploy. “And it is not a real job. It is really hard to tell the difference because there are real jobs that are being advertised in those countries, but you cannot tell the difference. They use fraud to get these people to come to the U.S. to work and then they are stuck. They take their documents and threaten to kill their mother or father.” 

Such schemes also withhold actual money for a farmworkers time and instead reward them with “prostitution, drugs, or alcohol,” Vashti Kelly, program manager for the association’s health and safety programs said. 

And while the adult farmworkers have their struggles, their kids experience major setbacks, as well. 

Children Endure the Same 

Unfortunately, the kids experience the same lack of civil rights as their parents. Whereas U.S. labor laws outright prohibit kids under 16 from participating in the workforce, the farmworker industry has its own set of regulations that allow children to work in the fields. 

“For agriculture, the child labor laws are different,” Kelly said. “(These laws) started out being different because (farmers) would have big families and the entire family would work the land.” And while many child labor laws have changed since the early 20th century, “unfortunately (farming) laws have remained the same.” 

Many parents improvise childcare for infants while working the farms by “using apple bins turned upside down as a play pen for the smaller babies,” Moesle said. 

To work on a farm, “children are allowed legally at the age of 12,” Kelly said. “Some states they can work as early as 10 with parental permission.” Many of the children work with their parents because they have no other options. “They understand the financial burden,” and “you miss out on school and it becomes the only financial (choice) they have.” Their education suffers because of this and they likely “continue (working on the farms) into adulthood.”

Seeing this tragedy befall the children, the team at the Association of Farmworkers Opportunity Programs has created a The Children in the Field campaign. The message they spread is one of hope and understanding aimed at the American public to ensure the safety and education of the children are provided. 

“The campaign focuses on three different areas,” Forti said. “One area is advocacy where we fight for children’s rights through raising awareness among the general public but also through policy makers.” AFOP works to change federal systems that allow for children to work on the farms. 

“The second area is providing a safe place to tell their stories,” she added. “We have our annual essay contest where we give them the opportunity to tell their stories, their challenges, hopes for the future. The winners receive a scholarship and the opportunity to travel to our national conference (held in Phoenix during late September).”

The last area may just be a matter of life and death for a lifelong farmworker. That is why AFOP teaches children and parents about experiencing pesticide while working. “We think it is important to help prevent exposure to pesticide from an early age,” Forti said. “We created a storytelling curriculum that is for children starting at age 4.” Regarding parents, AFOP has focus meetings that discuss pesticide exposure while pregnant. 

However, while AFOP’s steadfast determination combats some issues, the more difficult journey is enduring the toxins in the fields. 

Exposure to Chemicals

The annual National Long-Sleeve Shirt Drive has garnered much attention each year since its inception in 2013. With every new year, the number of long-sleeve shirts the association has collected through its 32 affiliates nationwide — many on college campuses — has risen by the thousands. Last year, the drive amassed 17,857. They hope to scale 20,000 shirts in 2020.  

The drive not only provides clothing for the farmworkers but also highlights the gratefulness the association and its supporters have for all those who have sacrificed so much to feed America. “It is a week where we show appreciation for the farmworker community,” Forti said. “We say thank you for all the hard work, the long hours, and for putting your health at risk.”

While people might know of the grueling labor every farmworker braves each day in the fields, they might not know of the dangerous pesticides they are exposed to as they gather crops. Many farmworkers suffer from numerous health complications brought on from various chemicals doused upon the vegetables to kill fungus and insects. 

Of the several dangerous chemicals used to grow their crops, chlorpyrifos is notorious. This particular pesticide effects the body in similar ways akin to horrendous nerve agents used during WWII. And while there has been repeated attempts to ban chlorpyrifos, an agreement yet has been met.  Kelly knows the fight to eradicate (or reduce) the use of chlorpyrifos is unlikely. “It is going to be a really hard push.” 

Certain American companies know the production and selling of farming pesticides paints them in a negative light. “It is hard to track which companies use (pesticides) because a lot of big agriculture businesses are outsourcing their pesticide applications,” Forti said. 

In other words, American pesticide companies are already preparing for an eventual sweep of labor laws prohibiting them from manufacturing pesticides on U.S. soil. Therefore, they have begun using other countries that grant them permission to use their land for pesticide production.

In addition to representing farmworker rights, one of Forti and her team’s goal is to inform the country about the many potential hazards and the unfortunate methods of recourse farmworkers face. “They can suffer from pesticide exposure and heat exposure,” she said. Sadly enough, the latter example is just as deadly as a chemical reaction from pesticides. Exposure to long hours of the sun’s ultraviolet rays allow for immediately dire consequences, such as dehydration and heat stroke for the farmworkers — hence, the drive’s existence to collect thousands of shirts to cover the farmworkers skin while in the sun. 

And while the odds may seem against the average farmworker in the states and change is many years away, the team at AFOP stays optimistic. The have plans. They know their actions will produce effective results because they are focused.

Hope and Opportunity

“We want to have child labor laws enforced,” Forti said. “Every other industry has laws against children doing hazardous work and it has been deemed that they are doing hazardous work in agriculture, but it is perfectly alright. We need to protect all children equally no matter what color or income or status they have.”

Moesle wants to focus on building the resume of farmworkers to have various talents that will open doors to other professions. “We need to train farmworkers to have a more diverse skill set,” she said. “They get more responsibilities on the farm or work yearround. They might get their commercial driver’s license and become a truck driver. (The farmworkers) are very easy to train, very motivated, with a high work ethic.”

Kelly hopes farmworkers will take the opportunities AFOP offers. “We provide different occupation work and training to farmworkers,” such as “pesticide safety, heat stress, chemical hazards, take home pesticide exposures, food safety.” She hopes more people will get involved in the community. “Do something good. Involve your schools. Read the annual publication on our website.”

It is overdue for everyone to “start looking at everybody as the same,” Forti said. “We have more things that bring us together than separate us. Lend a helping hand and let them know that I have you. Love thy neighbor.”