We were squeezed into the back of my friend Steve’s car, on the way to deliver a letter to a tobacco grower’s home in Garrard County, Kentucky, in support of seven of his laborers. The grower was illegally exploiting them, and they had made the courageous decision to join FLOC (the Farm Labor Organizing Committee) and go on strike in protest. One of them, Adolfo, had just shown me a picture of his 2-month-old daughter, at home with his wife in Hidalgo, Mexico, whom he had yet to hold in his arms. He is here in Kentucky on an H2A visa for six months of work to provide for his family. This was his third year to work on this particular farm, and he and six of his fellow laborers had had enough.
The H2A program links farmers with laborers from outside the U.S.A. and provides a legal contract: so many hours work a week, for so many weeks, at a fixed hourly rate. In Kentucky, that rate is $10.92 (which may sound like a lot, but only six states offer a lower rate). The farmer reimburses the travel expenses of the laborers: the laborers have to pay for the visa application process. The farmer provides accommodation, and the tools for the work. Or, at least, they are supposed to. But many do not abide by the contract, and that is why my daughter Maggie and I, along with about 20 other allies from Lexington, Louisville and Berea made our way towards Paint Lick this past Sunday, to stand in solidarity with these seven young men.
We crowded into their basic cement block accommodation, and began by sharing a simple meal of beans, rice and chicken chimis, sent by La Casita Center in Louisville. Then we listened for an hour as the men told their story, Felix Garza from the National Farm Worker Ministry translating for those of us who didn’t speak Spanish. The first year they worked for this grower, he had only paid them $7 an hour, instead of the contracted $10.92. The previous year he had paid them $8 an hour. This year, he had changed their wages from hourly to piece work – 15 cents per stick of six plants. If they worked as fast as possible they could make about $7-$8 an hour, but at that speed, accidents happen, and they could all show us scars on their arms from an errant blade, or from the sharp metal spike atop the sticks. Whenever they complained to the grower about the reduced hourly rate, they told us his consistent response was, “If you don’t like what I’m paying you, go back to Mexico.”
But reducing their wages is not the only way he exploits them. He doesn’t give them enough hours of work. Some weeks they may only go out for a few hours every other day. Or he may decide he needs them to work 12 hours a day for two days, then nothing for three. At the end of the week, he sits down with them individually to endorse the back of their pay check – which he has left blank, so they do not know how much he actually draws from the bank for them. They just see the cash he gives them when he returns. This may be so the bank records show he has paid them the $10.92 an hour as per the contract, and then he pockets the difference. He also made them bring their tools with them, and provides no safety wear for this difficult and sometimes dangerous work. If they handle tobacco for 10-12 hours a day, the amount of nicotine they absorb through their skin prevents them from sleeping.
Besides seeing the photo of Adolfo’s beautiful baby daughter, the moment that will remain with me from the three hours we spent with these exploited young men was after we had signed the letter to deliver to the grower. We were ready to drive to his home when Adolfo said, “He won’t be there yet. He’s still at church.”
“He’s still at church.”
I wonder what kind of church he attends. One of the “bible churches” liberally scattered across rural Kentucky perhaps? If so, I wonder how he has managed to avoid the dozens of passages throughout the bible that address treating your workers well. Because the bible was written in an agrarian culture, and between the two horizons of the text and this grower’s situation, agricultural laborers have remained some of the most vulnerable people for millennia. In Torah, it is written, “Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” (Deuteronomy 24.15) James writes, “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” (James 5.4) Well, these exploited laborers had cried out to their church-going employer, and he had refused to listen to them. So they cried out to the Union, and the Union responded.
We are hoping that with pressure from the Union and one of the companies that buys this grower’s tobacco, he will decide to act justly and give these seven men the backpay he owes them, as well as provide enough work for them moving forward. Ultimately that they will win a Union contract with this grower. They are afraid he may report them as “bad workers” which could prevent them from gaining a visa next year – the Union will provide protection from that kind of retaliation.
After this situation is resolved, I’d like to believe that the grower will sit in his regular pew one Sunday and ponder his actions. Or perhaps that he’ll be reading his bible during his regular quiet time, and stumble across one of these passages, and ask questions of himself. Or that his pastor will, from time to time, preach to the farmers in his congregation about treating your workers with respect.
I’d like to believe that.
(These young men are running out of money to buy food and basic living supplies. If you’d like to support them during this time, you may do so by contributing to FLOC here)
Photo credit: Steve Pavey, Hope In Focus