Crop tenders

Women farm workers face multiple issues in their seasonal worklife

Who produces that delicious tomato that shows up on your salad plate? What are some of the issues faced by women farm workers in the fields or processing plants? Minnesota, like the rest of the nation, is reliant on immigrant workers to help plant, tend, harvest, package and deliver our food.

It’s estimated that there are 3 million farm workers in the U.S.-21 percent of whom are women, according to a 2005 Department of Labor survey. Some come with temporary work visas from Mexico, others may be immigrants or refugees from Laos, Somalia or Africa who have settled permanently in Minnesota.

“You’ll see Somali women working next to Latina women, handling and picking tomatoes,” said Gloria Contreras Edin, a St. Paul attorney who works on immigration and refugee issues. While tomatoes, along with other foods, are cultivated on Minnesota farms, processed and packed, then shipped to local warehouses and grocery stores, “the people who are touching them are from Somalia, Africa, Mexico or Latin America,” Edin said.

Latinos/as represent an overwhelming majority of Minnesota’s immigrant farm workers. A survey by the farm worker advocate group Centro Campesino found that the majority of the Latino/a migrant farm workers who come to Minnesota for the growing season are based in Texas. Only a few come from Mexico.

One perspective
Lina Garza is one of those farm workers. Her family was from Plainfield, Texas. She has spent the growing in season in Minnesota since before she was old enough to work. There were 11 kids in her family. They traveled from state to state depending on the season.

Garza, now 38, joined the labor force when she was 12, picking asparagus. But her stories are not dreary or evocative of “Grapes of Wrath.” In fact, Garza was disappointed when her family decided to settle permanently in Blooming Prairie, Minn. She was 16 at the time and recalled that she liked moving from place to place. “I thought it was exciting,” she said. “I liked getting to see the people I saw last year.”

Health and housing
Two of the biggest challenges for farm workers are health and housing. Health insurance is almost unheard of in the industry, and problems like diabetes are extremely common in both women and men, said Federico Rivera, who works on health education projects for Centro Campesino, based in Owatonna. “They work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” Rivera said. “They get a quick break, they’re really hungry, and what’s the easiest thing? To grab a bag of Fritos and grab a soda and get back to work.”

Migrant farm workers often spend the growing season in company-provided housing. Garza used to spend her summers in one of these camps, recalling there were about 30 houses that sat in a circle around two communal bathrooms, one for men and one for women. Garza’s family slept in bunk beds in one of the houses, which she described as “like an apartment but without a bathroom.” Her memories of the camp are positive.

But the housing quality varies from camp to camp. Some are dirty and leaky, and Executive Director Victor Contreras said, Centro Campesino has had to work hard to get companies to put hot water in all the camps. Many still don’t have kitchens, making things even worse on the nutrition front.

Some of the camps are segregated by gender. Wives are separated from their husbands. Mothers often have to leave their children in the care of a relative back in Mexico or Texas.

Sexual violence
Another problem facing female farm workers is sexual harassment.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) began the Bandana Project in 2007 to raise awareness of sexual violence against farm workers. (The project adopted the bandana because many women farm workers use bandanas on the job to cover their faces and bodies in an attempt to ward off unwanted sexual attention.) According to a 2008 survey of immigrants in the Southeastern U.S., 77 percent cited sexual violence as a major problem.

Monica Ramirez, director of an SPLC project called Esperanza: The Immigrant Women’s Legal Initiative, said the level of harassment is so high in agriculture because women are isolated and often don’t know what their rights are. “A lot of time they’re working in fields that are far away from any town, and the perpetrators exploit that,” she said. “The harassment ranges from inappropriate comments and touching to rape in the field.”

Centro Campesino is looking into incidents of sexual harassment of Minnesota women farm workers, but it’s hard to find anyone willing to talk about it publicly.

The main goal of the Bandana Project is to raise awareness and get people to show support. Women are more likely to come forward and do something about this, Ramirez said, if they know that there are women throughout the U.S. who’ve got their backs.

Human economics
“We’re more interrelated than people often pause to think about,” Edin said. “[Farm worker] migration influences our food supply and economy.” She believes that we need to describe Minnesota as a place in the world that depends on immigration. “They are key to our workforce. Historically, immigrants have come to our state, they’ve played a role in the last century by participating in the workforce. They work hard. They are well-liked workers and often they have family generations on the same farm.”

Edin encourages people to pause and think about the human economics of what brought these folks to work at the plant or the farm, as opposed to thinking, “Well here’s a bunch of people who are taking over other people’s jobs. They are the ones that bring that relatively delicious and yet inexpensive tomato on our salad plates.”

Somali women in the food industry
Latina migrant workers have been in Minnesota since the 1920s, but over the past couple of decades the number of Somali immigrants in rural areas has grown exponentially, with the majority working for meat-packing plants.

Fartun Hussein is the director of the St. Cloud Area Somali Women’s Association (SASWA). She said many Somalis wind up in the plants because it’s unskilled labor that doesn’t require English skills. “The only opportunity they have is to go to the meat-packaging production line.”

This is especially true for women, Hussein said. “A lot of them didn’t have the chance to be schooled or learn the language, and then they have the responsibility of the domestic work at home, so they neglect to gain the same independence. It’s easier for men to do that.”

Get Involved
The Bandana Project
A project of the Southern Poverty Law Center to stop sexual abuse of women farm workers

Centro Campesino
A membership organization to improve the lives of migrant workers and rural Latino/as in southern Minnesota

Radical Women
A San Francisco-based organization advocating for immigrant workers’ rights