by John Gonzalez

 Coordinated by the Diocesan Public Policy Advisory Committee, this is the fourth  in a series of articles about the five issues that will focus our public policy efforts at the Catholics at the Capitol day on March 19.  Each summary summarizes how the issue impacts, specifically, life and ministry in the Diocese of Rockville Centre. To read the issue brief about Justice for Farmworkers from the New York State Catholic Conference, click here.

As an Hispanic-American Catholic who was inspired by the social teachings of our Church I was fascinated by the legacy of Cesar Chavez and his commitment to defend the rights and dignity of the farmworking community. He was personally inspired by Catholic social teaching and in defending the rights of a certain group he saw himself involved in the evangelical work of building up the Body of Christ, a body that was wounded so longas any segment of that body was suffering injustice.In Cesar’s own words:

 When the man who feeds the world by toiling in the fields is himself deprived of the basic rights of feeding, sheltering and caring for his own family, the whole community of man is sick.

When I thought of Cesar Chavez and the farmworker struggle, I considered it a social struggle that took place in the 60’s and 70’s, a struggle that affected the rural farming communities of the south and southwest. The farmworking community had been excluded from fair labor laws and worker protections that had been established in the 1930’s with the New Deal. In my naiveté I believed the issue to have been resolved; that surely we do not currently live in a time or in a community that accepts such human right violations and degrading labor practices. I was quite taken aback when the New York State Catholic Conference (NYSCC) identified this as one of the five issues to be addressed at this year’s Catholics at the Capitol.

This issue affects a community that is hidden in plain sight. We know that the migrant community lives in our neighborhoods; they attend our parishes and schools. But as farmworkers their situation remains hidden from us. At Catholic Charities and through our Parish Social Ministries I recall becoming aware of some of their stories but their situation seemed so surreal that we had a hard time accepting that it is still happening today.

Currently there are about 90,000 farmworkers in New York State who are still denied the rights that others have. On Long Island alone there are 7,000 farmworkers working the 600 farms that exist primarily along the East End of Long Island’s North Fork. Many of them work 80 hours a week during harvest season without overtime, the option for a day of rest, collective bargaining or disability insurance. The child minimum wage continues to be $3.45 for children as young as twelve years old.

When we go to Albany we will be advocating to support passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act (A1792/S1743). It is now up to us to make sure that it is addressed here in our own communities.

John Gonzalez is a Parish Social Ministry Developer at Catholic Charities.  John, along with the Parish Social Ministry staff of Catholic Charities, worked to coordinate and facilitate our diocesan preparation sessions for Catholics at the Capitol. John can be reached at Gonzalez.John@CatholicCharities.cc.

 CNS photo/J.D. Long-Garcia

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