I joined the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs this past September, taking over for retiring executive director David Strauss, who had served as the organization’s leader for the last 11 years. I was faced with the challenge of learning about the many intricacies of the farmworker advocacy movement. As a new-comer to this community, the many efforts and accomplishments throughout 2012 provided me with great inspiration to meet the challenges of 2013.
It has been an extremely busy year for our national staff and 51 member organizations. Our members continued to operate a variety of programs that help improve the lives of farmworkers. In addition to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Farmworker Jobs Program, many operate Head Start grants as well as provide education and housing counseling. In the association’s national office, we also helped serve farmworkers through our well-established Health & Safety Programs, which provided pesticide safety and heat stress prevention training to more than 25,000 farmworkers across the country with the help of our 16 SAFE AmeriCorps members in 2012. Additionally, our Children in the Fields Campaign garnered a surfeit of national and local media attention throughout the year as the campaign’s national and regional coordinators advocated to protect the hundreds of thousands of migrant and seasonal farmworker children who are toiling under dangerous conditions in U.S. agriculture.
The NFJP is the thread that binds the non-profit and public agencies that make up our membership. Year after year, the members continue to provide life-changing job training and education opportunities for America’s migrant and seasonal farmworkers, consistently surpassing the common measures established by the U.S. Department of Labor. This year’s results for Program Year 2011-2012 show NFJP providers achieved a national entered employment rate of 82.6 percent and an employment retention rate of 80.9 percent. These results were achieved despite serving a population with significant barriers to employment not faced by other jobseekers amidst staggering unemployment. In addition, the program offers a 114 percent return on investment for the government and a 316 percent return to their community and state.
Throughout this past year, AFOP has continued to work closely on the reauthorization efforts for the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which authorizes the National Farmworker Jobs Program under Section 167. This past year, Democrats and Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee introduced separate bills to update the WIA. Unfortunately, the majority bill that passed out of committee, H.R. 4297, relies on a one-size-fits all model of service and effectively eliminates competition by simply directing federal money to state governors in a fashion similar to a block grant. The goal of H.R. 4297 is to create one system for workforce training, but those of us in the workforce development community know that, if implemented, it would likely act as a disincentive to training hard-to-serve individuals whose training often requires more resources and money. Given this bill’s potential to deny farmworkers the tailored workforce development they need to secure a self- and family-sustaining employment in the present job market, AFOP will work harder than ever to educate Congress and the general public about the need for a robust national migrant and seasonal farmworker job training program.
Sequestration also posed a challenge last year. In the final hours of the 112th Congress, lawmakers voted to postpone the impending cuts to defense discretionary and non-defense discretionary for two months, including federal job training programs like the NFJP. Many speculate that the 113th Congress will address the sequesters as a part of the debt ceiling debate over the next eight weeks. With funding already tight, any cuts could have a devastating effect on AFOP members’ efforts to provide the job training farmworkers need to obtain the skills employers require. Given the fragile nature of our nation’s economy and stagnant unemployment, AFOP will work hard to ensure the public and decision-makers understand the dire consequences of any decisions to reduce funding for workforce development funding for jobseekers and the availability of skilled workers for local businesses across the country to thrive.
Last year, a major step to improve the safety and working conditions for farmworker children was in the works. The U.S. Department of Labor announced proposed updates to the Hazardous Orders in late 2011 to protect children under the age of 16 who are hired on farms. The rules would have restricted farmworker children, aged 12 through 15, from performing work that data has shown to be especially dangerous. The introduction of the updates to the safety rules for children employed in agriculture drew heavy criticism from Big Agriculture and the farm lobby, seeping into election discussions during the Republican Presidential Primary. AFOP’s Children in the Fields Campaign staff worked tirelessly to educate the public on the dismal circumstances under which many migrant and seasonal children work, but the Obama Administration withdrew the rules in April of 2012 as the pressure from corporate agricultural interest swelled. The announcement came during Youth Voices In Action, a very special event the Children in the Fields Campaign youth councils organized to share their experiences as child farmworkers. The youth, who had traveled from Texas and North Carolina, intrepidly declared that they would continue to move forward and continue to fight for the equal protections for farmworker children.
Our Health & Safety Programs staff also continued to raise awareness of the dangers farmworkers face due to pesticide exposure and other occupational injuries related to agricultural work. Staff wrote many articles and blogs on the importance of health literacy and several significant studies published throughout the year offering guidance on what the findings mean for the health of America’s farmworkers. Evidence published in 2012 shows low-level pesticide exposure can seriously affect human health, links between pesticides and Parkinson’s disease, and that pesticides on fruits and vegetables may put children at risk for cancer. These findings will certainly help AFOP in its unremitting efforts to train farmworkers and their families as well as secure better protections and safety standards.
There were many victories for farmworkers in 2012. Chipotle signed on to the Fair Food Agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and many new studies began to show a clearer picture of the harmful effects of pesticides on health.
Throughout the next year, it is our mission to continue providing farmworkers with an opportunity to achieve their American Dream. We will fight for better job training and education opportunities and persist in our efforts to deal with issues plaguing the farmworker community, including wage theft, the flawed guestworker program, and immigration reform. Please help us educate others to the plight of migrant and seasonal farmworker in the United States by reading updates on what’s happening and sharing the information with others.
Join us this 2013 in our fight to protect the American Dream and advocate for farmworker rights. Together, we must insure federal job training opportunities are protected for the most vulnerable populations and that the farmworkers who harvest the food we eat are treated fairly and with dignity. For more opportunities on how you can help, check out the “Get Involved” page on our website.