A Brief Chat about Workers’ Rights
by: Community to Community Development Posted on: September 08, 2013
Editor’s Note: Sakuma Farms Inc. farmworkers have been striking and fighting for more humane wages, living quarters and working conditions. A local community-based organization, Community to Community, has supported the workers. Below is a conversation with Edgar Franks, Community to Community’s Coordinator for the Formación Cívica (Civic Engagement) Project.
Simon Davis-Cohen: What was the final straw that led to the strike?
Edgar Franks: The final straw was when Federico Lopez was fired for asking for a better wage. Workers felt it was unfair and that he was right. That at the rate they were working they could not feed their families. Working in the hot summer sun for 10-12 hours and only making 30 to 40 dollars a day is not livable or respectful. In what other field of work would that be acceptable? If you worked that long and only made 40 dollars would you not want to say something? Furthermore would you accept being fired and kicked out of the place where you were living with your wife and infant daughter? Or would you do something?
SDC: How would you define unalienable workers’ rights?
EF: I would define it as a place where people are treated with dignity and their labor is respected. It’s nothing too complicated but when folks are working they don’t want to feel that they are just there to produce. We often get sucked into the mindset that the workplace is just for us to go and break our backs and give all we can and if we get treated bad or unjustly we just need to take all the abuse and should be thankful that we got a job in the first place. Many of the people involved in the strike have spoken of this that year after year they are disrespected but because of the risk of being fired they don’t speak out.
SDC: What systemic dysfunctions are the violations of workers’ rights at Sakuma symptoms of?
EF: The food system of the United States and around the world is broken. Family farms and sustenance farmers from everywhere are trying to compete in a market that is dominated by transnational agribusiness, where profits and the bottom line are the motivating factors and not the creation of sustainable practices that benefit local communities. There is a huge disconnect of the vision of what the food system should function as. At the heart of the problem is the whole capitalist notion that profit and growth are good. When those values are placed above dignity and cooperation there will be natural conflicts that will arise. When the maximizing of company profits is the be all, end all then at some point someone is going to feel the brunt of that unsustainable structure and that is usually the worker. In this case the indigenous migrant farmworkers. To further highlight the failings of the current food system, many of the farm workers that are working here were sustenance farmers in their home country, but because of free trade agreements and the flooding of their local market with US based GMO corn, they could no longer live off the land the way they had been for centuries. So mass migration was a way for survival, not because they wanted to but because they had too. They simply were going to where globalization was taking the jobs.
In this current system, in order to maximize profit and production, the Farm Workers are just seen as beasts of burden. They are there to work under any condition and take whatever punishment. If that means putting up with racist supervisors, or living in aluminum roofed shacks, or being fired for being sick, if that is what it takes for the company to continue making money so be it.
There has to be a point where this has to change. We have to look into alternatives where the workers are treated as equals with the bosses. If it doesn’t we can expect more confrontations because of the unwillingness to work cooperatively. The way our current system is built, there is no way of that ever happening.
Photo: Tomás Madrigal
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