January 26, 2012

Dignity of Work

Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner

Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner

Visiting Assistant Professor

Department of Theology, Loyola University, Maryland

In the 1990s, we were concerned with fair food production and trade conditions, especially with the lot of migrant farmworkers. That concern seems to have fallen to the margins of public discussion—but not so with Baltimore Food and Faith’s Enoughness series, which met for the third time on Tuesday at The Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies (ICJS), where we focused on the dignity of work.

A month or so ago I visited Angela Smith, Project Director of Baltimore Food and Faith, an initiative of The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Our discussion touched a whole range of questions related to food, environment, and faith-based organizations in Baltimore and around the globe. We looked at some challenges faced by socially diverse urban centers, such as Baltimore, the hunger concerns of the city’s more than 4,000 homeless residents and food deserts in the East Baltimore. We also took note of some exciting developments, including the vegetable gardens spurting on the church grounds. Sometimes green theology lands right on the barren grounds of struggling neighborhoods. For instance, Ark Church on E. North Avenue has an impressive, tubular greenhouse arrangement right in the quarters that otherwise would be just vacant lots.

But back to dignity of work and the discussion at ICJS this Tuesday. One of our preliminary readings included a chapter from Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi’s book Food Justice (MIT 2010), which examines an array of food equality questions related to production and environment. One of the concerns involves the migrant farm workers and the harsh conditions of hazardous, temporary work, and below poverty level wages. The authors sum the condition of migrant farm work with the words of the documentary Harvest of Shame (1960): “We used to own our slaves, now we just rent them.”

Our interfaith gathering of about 20 to 30 people heard two perspectives on work and dignity. Norma Flores López, Children in the Fields Campaign Director, shared her personal story of growing up in a migrant farmworker family. Starting at the age of twelve she worked in the fields with her family. Awkward positions of bending over and reaching out for the harvest were tough for the whole family’s muscles—in the evening their simple abode reeked of sports creams. “We, kids, were in stress,” she said. Rushed good-byes to recently met friends were common, because the family searched for work around the country. The pesticides were euphemistically spoken of as “plant medicine.” Ms. López jokingly summed that her diminutive figure is a testimony that too little energy was left over for physical growth.

Ms. López found her way out of life in fields because her parents strongly believed in the power of education. Today she pursues her Master’s degree in policy work and advocates for the 400,000–500,000 children who, according to National Agricultural Workers Survey, still legally work in the farms around the U.S. The labor laws concerning farm work were formed back in 1938 to meet the needs of family farmers; now these laws hurt migrant children who may legally work in the farms from age 12 onward. They may also be employed in hazardous farm labor from age 16 up (in other professions the age limit is 18). The same law still holds, but The Department of Labor proposed a few months ago changes, which would introduce stricter regulations to children’s hazardous farm work. That would be good news to migrant farmworker children.

What can communities of faith do to respond to the unjust conditions of food production? Ed McNally, Director of the Franciscan Center in lower Charles Village, drew our attention to the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching, which advocates for such concepts as solidarity and common good. One of the key teachings of the Catholic social ethics is known as “the preferential option for the poor,” which relates to the ideal of prioritizing the needs of the poorest of the poor. Migrant farm workers are certainly right in the top of that list. Mr. McNally also addressed the complex idea of dignity of all humans and all types of work. Conditions of work are built upon dignity when they strengthen the workers’ freedom and enable them to make long-term plans not only for themselves but also for their children.

“Think globally. Act locally.” The churches too are called to follow environmental and social justice strategies that go beyond their immediate faith traditions and communities. A good example of such collaboration is the manual Convergences: Decent Work and Social Justice in Religious Traditions,” which The World Council of Churches and the International Labor Organization published just a few days ago. I downloaded the document online; it gives information and action items to interfaith work concerning just labor in the farms and other fields of production. It is not easy to know the conditions in which one’s food is produced, but certifications such as Food Alliance Certification—given to farms that build upon safe and fair working conditions—help, as does the good old Fair Trade Certification. Baltimore-based Lutheran World Relief has invested in Fair Trade Divine Chocolate produced in Ghana. How about sumptuous Divine Dark Chocolate and Ginger for Valentine’s Day?

One Comment

  1. Christine Grillo

    Posted by Christine Grillo

    Thank you, Maiju, for turning our attention back toward dignity and the deplorable situation of farmworkers who produce our food. (Also, I love this shopping/gift idea for Valentine’s Day. I agree – Dark Chocolate with Ginger and Orange sounds divine.)

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