Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) celebrates 20 years of solidarity with farmworkers this year. Since its incorporation in 1992, it has worked deeply with over 650 young people, directly impacted over 80,000 farmworkers, and reached over 250,000 students and community members through National Farmworker Awareness Week. While SAF addresses immediate problems faced by farmworkers by connecting them with access to services and opportunities, the organization’s focus on facilitation, collaboration, empowerment, and sustainability make it a beacon among other groups doing similar work.
Farmworkers are denied many basic rights and freedoms enjoyed by others. Many of NC farmworkers are economic refugees from their home country and have few if any alternatives to laboring in the fields. Most migrant workers do not have the right to privacy due to living in overcrowded housing provided by their employer, who often deny the workers the right to visitors (including legal aid, labor unions, student activists, and even health care providers). Farmworkers face hazardous conditions that can be deadly; NC has had the most heat-related deaths among farmworkers in the country in recent years. As the majority of workers are undocumented, they face fear and are thus often unable to defend themselves from workplace or other abuses.
Farmworkers are consistently treated as different from other employees, and thus governed by different labor standards. Farmworkers suffer from “agricultural exceptionalism,” an historic practice of excluding farmworkers from legal protections benefiting other workers (e.g. exclusion from the National Labor Relations Act, which governs worker organizing and collective bargaining, and from various provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the minimum wage, overtime and child labor law). These exceptions date back to the mid 1930s when the overwhelming majority of farmworkers were African American. Due to racial discrimination, these minority farmworkers were treated differently under the law.
Farm work has continued to be performed by people of color, with the majority of current farmworkers being Latino. There has been little to no effort to change the federal labor laws to benefit this workforce. Also, many states have historically excluded farmworkers from provisions covering most other employees. For instance, the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act does not cover most farmworkers. There have been numerous failed attempts, the most recent in the 2003 legislative session, to amend the Act to cover farmworkers at the same rate as other employees. Where legal protections do exist, the unique aspects of migrant life fuels under-enforcement. The government agencies that are charged with enforcing laws covering farmworkers are under-staffed, often have close ties with employers, and do not always provide information to workers in a culturally appropriate manner.
Student Action with Farmworkers makes change through education, policy advocacy, leadership development, support of litigation and organizing. Since its inception, SAF has placed college interns (now required to be bilingual) with legal, healthcare, outreach and organizing agencies throughout the Southeast to extend agency outreach to farmworkers, inform them of their rights, and facilitate their self-advocacy through legal or other means. The organization is committed to having a majority of SAF “Into The Fields” interns from farmworker families themselves, and works closely with the migrant farmworker community to understand the linguistic, economic, social and cultural barriers to obtaining and effectuating change. Key to SAF’s training is tackling the systemic racism faced by worker populations and train young people on anti-oppression, popular education, and organizing so they are best equip to work in solidarity with workers against discriminatory laws and practices.
SAF’s programming - from its flagship intership program to its expanded fellowship program, farmworker youth leadership institute, and Student Organizing School - is groundbreaking and life-changing, both for the youth involved and for the farmworkers with whom the youth interact. While farmworkers gain access to legal, health and educational services and training, students often find a lifelong commitment to justice and farmworker issues as a result of intentional programming that SAF coordinates, as well as develop skills in advocacy, public speaking, theatre, and the visual arts. A telling example of how the SAF internship has influenced young people is that most of the current SAF staff, as well as many current and former board members, started out as SAF interns themselves.
During Thanksgiving 2010, SAF and other members of the Farmworker Advocacy Network launched the Harvest of Dignity Campaign, calling for safe places to live, safe places to work, and stronger enforcement of existing laws protecting farmworkers. They had two bills introduced to the NC General Assembly in 2011, one focused on equalizing the law for children that work in the fields and the other focused on increasing housing and pesticide protections and ensuring that poultry workers have access to bathroom breaks. They also worked with Minnow Media to produce a half hour documentary video highlighting the conditions of farmworkers in NC today, 50 years after the famed Harvest of Shame documentary aired on national television. This documentary was recently awarded an Award of Merit at the Best Shorts Competition in California and has been aired on PBS. The Harvest of Dignity campaign builds upon the coalition’s previous success passing two bills that strengthen the standards and enforcement of migrant housing and pesticide safety for farmworkers in the state. Through these legislative efforts, SAF and FAN have fought for workers to have a right to privacy, access to visitors, and safe living and working conditions.
SAF is also working to increase immigrant access to higher education. Since 2003, they have collaborated with partner organizations through the Adelante Education Coalition to get bills introduced that would have allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at NC public universities and to call on the NC Community College System to create a consistent policy and enroll undocumented students. In February 2011, Adelante held 5 vigils across the state to protest a bill that would deny access to college for undocumented youth. Over 300 people attended the events held in Raleigh, Greensboro, Asheville, Greenville, and Charlotte. They also held spring lobby days, each led by a different member of the coalition, where they met with and distributed information to 45 legislators and their assistants.
Through participation in organizing and advocacy campaigns, SAF has created real changes in terms of stronger protections for farmworkers under the law, union contracts for guestworkers, and greater involvement by field and poultry workers in speaking out against abuses. Through leadership development of farmworkers and their family members, strong alliances and coalitions, and research-based campaigns, they are supporting immigrant youth, farmworkers, and allies to take leadership in the movement for farmworker justice. Allies are raising awareness of the abuses in the agricultural system, workers are giving their testimonies about conditions in the fields, and young people are putting pressure on policy makers and corporations to make a change.
I have thoroughly enjoyed celebrating with SAF in its 20th year, if only to hear the numerous testimony of former student after former student for whom SAF instilled a lifetime commitment to social justice. In full disclosure, I have served on the SAF board for six years and am rotating off per bylaws after stints as both board chair and treasurer. As a consultant in the nonprofit arena, I have been hard pressed to find an organization that has truly lived its values and “walked the walked” in the way I have witness SAF strive. The commitment to the work of this organization by this organization is visceral and extraordinary. It is collaborative. It is creative. It is fair. It is fun. How often can you find all of these values in one place and actually see it working? What organization can, on the one hand, have its director honored by the White House as a Cesar Chavez Champion of Change for improving farmworker conditions while, in the same year, receive the NC Folklore Society Community Traditions Award for the way it actually does it (through 20 years of collaborative documentary)?
SAF deserves recognition for the powerful contribution it has had in the improvement of lives of NC farmworkers while moving the ball forward in how we organize and advocate for the rights of all North Carolinians. I strongly recommend Student Action with Farmworkers.