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Justice for Those who Provide our Food

[caption id="attachment_6528" align="alignright" width="150"] Blog by Sr. Barbara Catalano[/caption] The wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud.  (James 5: 4)  These words cried out to me from the second Mass reading last Sunday. Saint James is very strong in condemning the labor injustice on the farms of his day. The workers’ wages were being withheld by cruel masters and their misery cried out to Heaven for justice. Actually, James could use the same words today about what happens in many of the fields of the U.S. One example is North Carolina where agriculture is the leading industry. Over 150,000 farm workers with their dependents work there during harvest season. The work is very labor-intensive especially the ‘stoop labor’ under a hot sun. Yet only 6 cents or less of every dollar the consumer will spend for that food goes to the farm worker. A number of years ago I spent a ministry summer in North Carolina. One evening I helped teach English to the workers in the farm camps. I saw how hard they had to work for a pittance and how eager they were to learn. In one camp the men were from Haiti, and when they received their meager wages, they would walk to the nearest town to wire the money to their families back home. The average annual income of the American farmworker is $11,000, making them the second lowest paid workforce in the nation. Farmworkers living in East Coast states such as North Carolina, earn about 35% less than that. The percentage of farmworker families living in poverty is nearly double that of other working families in the US.  In fact according to a 2006 study, nearly five out of 10 farmworker households in North Carolina reported not being able to afford enough food to feed their families. Besides the low wages, there are many occupational hazards the workers must endure as well such as: poisoning due to pesticides, muscular and skeletal damage, eye damage, heat illness, and injuries resulting from operating dangerous equipment. Taken together these frequent health issues make agriculture one of the three most dangerous occupations in the United States. To make matters worse, most growers are exempt from laws requiring Workers’ Compensation for farmworkers; safety laws are absent; and, there is no protection from employer retaliation under North Carolina and federal law for farmworkers. They may not unionize, or receive extra compensation for working overtime, or take sick leave. Add to this, the labor laws for farm workers allow children as young as 10 to work under certain conditions and with their parents' consent. The impact of Hurricane Florence is ongoing and will affect these farmworkers even more. If you want more information or feel God is calling you to help, contact the North Carolina Justice Center ( They conduct regular visits with volunteers to the camps where migrant farmworkers live in order to advise them of their rights, and provide legal representation to those whose rights have been violated. In addition, they advocate for laws that improve the working and living conditions of migrant workers.

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