Bishops call for end to 'exploitation' of undocumented farmworkers

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TUCSON, Ariz. (CNS) -- Expressing "deep concern for the men and women" who labor in the fields of southwestern Arizona and northern Mexico, the bishops of Tucson and Mexicali, Mexico, have issued a joint statement calling for legislation to end "exploitation of the undocumented farmworker."

Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas and Mexicali Bishop Jose Isidro Guerrero Macias urged passage of the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act, a bipartisan bill in the U.S. Congress known as AgJOBS, which they said would be "a very positive step toward reversing discrimination."

The bill, they said, enjoys broad support from both employers and workers' organizations and would streamline and improve the H-2A agricultural guest worker program, giving workers the right to appeal in federal court for enforcement of their rights and to receive higher wages.

The bishops said their March 28 statement "was inspired by our experiences in September of last year when we visited a farmworker project sponsored by Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' overseas relief and development agency, and our two dioceses in Yuma, Ariz., and San Luis Rio Colorado, (in the Mexican state of) Sonora."

"We visited the workers in the fields," the statement said. "We saw the communities in Mexico in which they live. We listened to farmworkers and employers share their needs and their dreams."

Known as the nation's "winter salad bowl," the Yuma area supplies more than 90 percent of the lettuce sold in the U.S. from November through February and this "requires a huge pool of readily available labor," the bishops said.

As much as 80 percent of the peak workforce for Yuma agriculture comes from Mexico and significant numbers of these workers do not have documentation that would allow them work in the U.S., the bishops said.

Recent enforcement of immigration regulations has prevented most workers from crossing the border to work in the Yuma fields, the bishops said, causing "a serious disruption" of help for employers.

"Employers and workers alike are anxious for solutions that will provide them safe and legal access to jobs and a guaranteed workforce to keep agriculture in the Yuma area strong," the bishops said.

While the H-2A visa system allows a foreign national entry into the U.S. for temporary or seasonal agricultural work, the bishops said employers are reluctant to use the program because it requires a time-consuming and often confusing application and certification process. Employers have to certify, among other things, that hiring foreign workers will not adversely affect U.S. workers.

The burdens of this process are "virtually prohibitive" for smaller employers, the bishops said, so family-owned farms especially are suffering from labor shortages.

In partnership with CRS, the two dioceses have established a nonprofit, worker-led organization called Independent Agricultural Workers Center, known by its Spanish acronym, CITA, to provide Mexican workers with H-2A guest worker visas.

"Through CITA," the bishops said, "our church is attempting to develop a new model of legal, stable and just farm labor in the produce industry in our border region that will benefit workers and employers alike."

In its first year, the center has placed 600 workers with employers who have signed a code of conduct that guarantees fair labor practices.

"The vision for CITA is that it will become a cooperative temporary employment agency wholly owned by its farmworker members that eventually will offer additional services to its members such as group health insurance, legal services and advocacy for policies to improve working conditions and benefits," the bishops said.

The bishops cited various hardships faced by farmworkers, including having to stay in the fields during high winds or rains to cover the crops with tarps and wait for the storm to pass, time for which they are not paid.

They also said workers often do not have the proper protection from pesticides used on crops and spend hours "stooped over in the fields" to earn about $2 or $2.50 a day.

They called on Arizona legislators to change state law to require overtime pay for seasonal agricultural workers. They said workers should get paid for time spent in transit to and from the job site and for time lost because of weather, and added that pesticide safety information and training should be strengthened.

They also called for dialogue to be initiated with Mexican legislators at the state and federal level to determine how to strengthen worker rights and protection for farmworkers in Mexican fields.

"We call on the faithful in our dioceses to join us in praying for the farmworkers and growers who bring abundance to our tables, often under very arduous working conditions and challenging economic conditions," the bishop said.

The bishops pledged to celebrate a special Mass together each year at the border separating Yuma and San Luis Rio Colorado "to honor the invaluable contributions of farmworkers and agricultural employers to our communities and our dioceses."

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