WASHINGTON (August 22, 2003) -- Despite the diminished attention given to the plight of farm workers in recent years, they "still have a claim on our conscience," according to the chairman of the bishops' domestic policy committee in his annual Labor Day statement.
Farm workers "often find themselves linguistically and culturally isolated and vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination because of their legal status and language barriers," said Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick.. While some farmers treat their workers well and deserve commendation, he said, "too many do not, often relying on labor contractors, some of whom essentially traffic in human labor and suffering for economic profit."
"When farm workers do come, they too often find meager jobs, decrepit housing, and unsafe conditions," Cardinal McCarrick said. "Some end up living under bridges or even in caves. Those who do find housing in labor camps sometimes live without decent sanitation, despite state and federal health laws. Violations of wage and hour laws are commonplace. Their children often must join them in the fields because without their help, the family may not survive. They can face death and injuries on the job from dangerous farm equipment and the threat of poisoning from the pesticides used to protect the crops."
Cardinal McCarrick called on the United States to remedy the situation with policies which recognize the basic dignity and rights of farm workers. Specifically, he said the government must ensure that farm workers receive a decent wage and living conditions that are safe and humane.
In addition, he called for "comprehensive immigration reform which features legalization" so that undocumented farm workers can obtain legal status which will allow them to assert their basic labor rights more freely.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops plans to address the concerns of farm workers and the agricultural sector during their semi-annual assembly in November. In their first major statement on the topic in a number of years, the bishops will raise several concerns that have arisen in recent years, including increasing concentration and globalization, trade, and genetically modified foods.
In the meantime, as the nation prepares to celebrate Labor Day, Cardinal McCarrick called on Americans to renew their commitment to "stand in solidarity with farm workers and other agricultural workers in defending their life and dignity and helping them to secure decent wages, safe working conditions, and better labor protections."
He said that while the plight of agricultural workers "may not be on the evening news or in the headlines, it should be at the heart of our thoughts, reflections, and priorities as we celebrate Labor Day this year."