The first agricultural shame is the polluting of our lakes and waterways. The second: migrant farm labor. This isn’t a new story by any means, but it’s still true that we have failed to come to grips with a system that (a) props up the farm economy with cheap, pliable labor and (b) is, by definition, wage slavery.
Like I said, not a new story. But it got a human face Thursday morning before the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee. Two members of Justicia Migrante, Jose Ignacio and Marita Canedo, spoke to the committee about the sorry state of worker housing on Vermont’s oh-so-picturesque farms. And they offered reasonable, practical ways to address the problem.
They were remarkable witnesses. They aren’t asking for pity, and they certainly have no use for condescension. They do want some basic protections for their working and living conditions (the kind we all take for granted), and they want some funding to help them and the farmers address the housing problem. They can’t do it by themselves, and the farmers can’t afford it.
They also have solid ideas for new kinds of farm housing. Ignacio, who spent four years as a migrant laborer, now works for New Frameworks, a firm creating sustainable, low-cost ways to design and build housing for farmworkers and others.
As you can perhaps tell, I was inspired by their testimony. These people are smart, hardworking, and willing to put their noses to the grindstone to gain a safer, more stable life.
What they’re asking for is really the least we should do. We have a moral obligation to change a broken system that takes advantage of the people who raise and harvest our food.
I can hear some voices in the back saying, “If they don’t like it, they can go back where they came from.” That’s a nice simple answer, but it ignores the fact that Vermont farms depend on cheap, pliable migrant labor. We worry about our vanishing dairy industry; how many more farms would go under if they had to pay prevailing wages and treat their workers as if they are people?
Truth is, we can’t live without migrant workers. We have to face that fact, and make provisoin for them so that they’re not being exploited any more.
Ignacio told of his own experience working 16-hour days and living in wretched conditions on a Vermont farm. “We were living in a garage beside the tractors,” he said through translator Canedo. “We shared a room with all our coworkers. We even shared beds.” (As one worker began their shift, another worker would take over the bed.) He spoke of cockroaches and mice, and a cold concrete floor.
“”This happens a lot, on many farms, maybe a majority,” he continued. He invited the committee on a tour of substandard farm housing. His invitation didn’t get an immediate response. He asked for a state inspection program for farm housing, because the workers don’t have the power to effect change on their own.
Rep. Terry Norris, whose wife spent 26 years in the ag business, noted that feed suppliers employ Spanish-speaking staff who visit farms. He asked if they are any help. The answer was pretty much no. “They usually take the farmer’s side,” said Canedo.
Also, and this was rich, those staffers often have side jobs locating and providing migrant laborers. They have a double incentive not to ruffle any feathers.
(Side note. Kudos to Rep. Heather Surprenant, the only committee member fluent in Spanish. I could tell because she would often react to Ignacio’s testimony before Canedo had a chance to translate.)
That was the depressing part. The inspiring part is how Ignacio and his compadres are involved in bettering their situation. Ignacio described how Justicia Migrante is working with Efficiency Vermont and New Frameworks to design and build sustainable, good-quality farm housing. But to go forward on a large scale, a funding source is needed.
Farmers don’t have the resources to build sufficient new housing. The workers sure don’t. Should the state step in? I don’t see why not. We’re making major efforts to increase affordable housing in Vermont. These are workers who live in seriously substandard housing, often inside barns or garages where there’s plenty of dust, smells, and noise.
And these are workers who are the bedrock of productive farms.
Those voices in the back are shrieking “But they’re ILLEGAL!!!!!”
Yeah. But we depend on them as much as they depend on their shitty jobs. This is a two-way bargain we make every day. Well, it’d be a bargain if we held up our end of the deal. Until we do, we’re seriously exploiting people who deserve fairness and respect.
Postscript. Recently I bemoaned the lack of “real people” testifying before the Legislature. This is an example of how much we miss in our expert- and lobbyist-driven system. You can read statistics and reports, you can listen to experts, but issues come to life when real people tell their stories. When you see and hear a person like Ignacio, who’s been ill-treated for years, retain his dignity, his energy, and his willingness to work hard for a better life, then it’s hard to ignore his claim to our attention.