Kicking off UR’s celebration of National Farmworkers Awareness Week on March 26, the Dining Team Green event “A Conversation with Mujeres Divinas” shared stories from a panel of four migrant farmworker women about the importance of their job and the injustices they face. Mujeres Divinas is an organization founded by migrant women workers to create a space for migrant women, and to bring them into a community.
“It’s a safe space where we women can talk and it’s not going anywhere,” Dolores Bustamante said, translated from Spanish to English by the event’s translator and campaign organizer for Worker Justice Center of NY, Cassandra Bocanegra. Mujeres Divinas connects migrant women to many resources in upstate New York, and acts as a “bridge in the community for women victims of sexual violence, work place violence, and wage theft.” The organization provides support and refers their community members to organizations and agencies that can assist them.
Other forms of support include assisting migrant workers with getting their driver’s licenses, going with them to court for visas or citizenship, and writing letters of support for immigration. They also work to spread awareness about sustainability issues such as the harmful use of pesticides on the workers themselves.
“The same needs that are within us are within the needs of the community,” Bocanegra translated for Bustamante. “We know that if we need it, there’s other women who need it in the community as well.”
Most of the panelists identified as mothers, some of whom were single mothers and asserted the importance of having Mujeres Divinas as a family of women. Being surrounded by strong, inspiring women has motivated the group to support others through difficult times.
“Helping others helps us [and] help show us what we need to do for ourselves as well,” panelist Beatriz Gatica said. “I think we’re in a time where as women, we should be helping each other, not pitting ourselves against each other. Because we know when we see women coming together, and uniting, we can change not only our community but the world.”
The women went on to discuss the many injustices that they face, including the pressures of the food industry. All four women work on a produce farm, most of them on an apple farm in upstate NY, where the pressure for perfect apples is placed on them by stores like Wegmans. During harvest season, they have to fill huge one meter by one meter boxes. Depending on experience level, it can take up to an hour to fill the box, and the workers are pressured by the quality of apples they fill. If a box has even two slightly “imperfect” apples, the box’s value typically drops from $23 to $12. These boxes can weigh up to 45 pounds, which they have to carry up and down stairs each time.
Another issue is benefits for the migrant workers. According to the panelists, benefits come out of their paycheck, but they don’t actually receive any of them. “We have no health insurance,” one of the panelists said. “I have to pay $1,000 out of pocket for a cyst I have to drain — if I have that money,” panelist Alma González said. If their children get sick, they can’t always pay for doctor visits.
Although the 2019 NY HERO Act won migrant farmworkers the right to overpay after 60 hours, this is not always an advantage to the system. Some days the workers are pressured to work past 60 hours on days they need to go home to their families or are physically exhausted, especially during harvest season. Likewise, they aren’t allowed to form unions or go on strike during this time.
“In theory, we have the right to a day off,” Bustamante said. “But if the boss says, ‘can you work today, I’ll pay you in cash,’ and they’re providing the housing, what are we supposed to say?”
Housing is another issue that migrant women face. Although all four women said they don’t live in housing provided by their bosses anymore, they acknowledge that many migrant workers who are new to the industry are in housing provided by employers. In this case, this adds much more pressure to the quality of their work and their stability. One panelist said that before she had independent housing, the employer who hosted her almost called immigration due to missed hours at work.
“There are a lot of things [our employers] continue to do in order to violate [our ] rights,” panelist Hormis Bedolla said. “We went down to a state conference in Albany and told them that we can’t do this. We can’t work 60 hours when we have families and other things we need to take care of. 60 hours of [work] a week is too much.”
However, the women pointed out the consequences of working less than 60 hours a week. “We also can’t work less than 60 hours because it’s very little than what we get paid [now]. Right now, as you know, the minimum wage [in NY] is like $13.50, and what can I buy with that amount? I can’t buy healthy food for my kids. Everything organic costs a fortune,” Bedolla said.
“I also wanted to point out that the farmworker minimum wage is less than the standard minimum wage,” Bocanegra added.
“It becomes a vicious cycle,” Bedolla continued. “We can’t work less hours to be with our families because then we won’t be able to afford the necessities that they need, so we end up working more hours and missing out on time with our family. But are we supposed to do it if the employer who is providing housing is asking us to do it?”
Additionally, during the winter months when they are working in 20 degree weather, there are harsher conditions and pressures. There are no public bathrooms and if the women are on their period, it makes it even more difficult. It is required that water has to be a quarter of a mile away by law, so even in the hotter months, they risk the time lost to walk the quarter mile and the number of boxes they fill.
When asked by a member in the audience how people can help, the panelists emphasized taking the produce in grocery stories that might not be “perfect.”
“If there’s a small bruise on an apple, take it. It’s not going to hurt you or taste any different; it just takes the pressure off of us,” Gatica said.
“There are always phone calls to make, letters to write, information to send to the governors and legislators letting them know you’re aware of the issue and we support this bill or we support this movement,” Bustamante. “Allies are really important with legislation because as important farmworkers are to our community and our economy, legislators tend to ignore them because [migrants] can’t vote. And as everyone here has the privilege to vote, learn about legislators and representatives who aren’t against farmworkers because there are a lot who are against farmworkers.”
Another way to help Mujeres Divinas is to follow and like their FaceBook page, and share the activities that they do. The panelists encouraged students to become aware of the different campaigns that are happening, such as One Billion Rising, which supports minority women across the globe.
“If you are interested in learning more about the work that we do, bring your friends. You are welcome to join us to see what the work is and see what it is like to be a farmworker. Just check the weather before you come so you can dress appropriately,” González said.
Additionally, they encouraged students to spread more awareness about the discrimination migrant workers face, especially for children in school. “Our kids will […] get bullied by other classmates who [are white],” González said. “They tell our kids in our community that their parents only came here to steal jobs and that’s not true, and the time that I’ve been here [for 11 years], I’ve only seen two or three white people who work in the fields with me. And we’re humans. We’re humans who came to this country to have a better future.”
“Have more empathy for everyone — for different people of different races, of different backgrounds, and talk to everyone. Accept people regardless of whether they’re Black, Brown, or white because, for example, my kids at school feel isolated, rejected, and the white students are always looking for an excuse to make them feel less than. They’ll laugh at their names because they can’t pronounce them,” she continued.
“And it’s not just us, the Latino immigrants that suffer from that, [it’s] every immigrant in this country. I made the decision to come here and left everything behind. I left my family, I left my home. I left everything behind to come here, and imagine if your parents decided or told you we’re moving to a different country. Not because we want to, but because we need to. We don’t know anyone, we don’t know the language, and we have to start from the bottom. And it hurts to leave everything. It hurts to leave your home, your family, your food, your culture,” she said.
“I think that’s a dilemma that every immigrant faces when they’re here,” González said. “We love this country, we came here because we love this country, and I’m very glad that my children are able to be born here to have those opportunities and be able to learn and they’re going to be able to go to college like you guys. And the other thing is that we’re supporting the economy. There’s a phrase that [we say], ‘farmworkers feed the world.’ We support that.”
“We always have the hope that our situation will change one day and it will get better,” Bedolla said.