When Myrto Cesaire approached a friend to inquire about local jobs, the friend mockingly suggested that “farm work” was her only option. Cesaire, who urgently needed a job and longed to experience the plight of migrant farm workers, immediately began to apply for farming jobs through a farm labor contractor (FLC). Within a few days, the FLC connected her with a farm that had a vacancy. The interview process was short, as they only wanted to know if she could read, write, and count. She was offered and accepted the job on the spot.
“The reason why I started working with them is because I noticed how hard they were working under the sun while I was passing by one day,” she said. “I’ve been invested in the cause ever since and told myself I needed to stand with them.”
Cesaire, who didn’t spend a lot of time working on the farm, recounts her experience as being bitter. Aside from the egregious working conditions, she says that farm workers have almost no rights. They can work up to 12 hours per day and receive little, if any, compensation for their arduous labor. She described the working conditions as being similar to “modern slavery.”
According to the Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States published by the Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation, in collaboration with the United Farm Workers, atrocities on U.S. farms include unmitigated safety violations, few legal protections, extremely low wages, squalid housing, unsafe transportation vehicles, exclusion from unemployment insurance, and barriers to workers compensation.
It didn’t take long before Cesaire started the Camyna Haitian Farmworkers and Migrants Association to advocate on their behalf. Their mission: “Cultivating respect, protection of basic human rights and fair treatment of migrant workers. To educate and support the migrant workers and their families.”
For more than two decades, Cesaire has advocated for farm workers along the East Coast, from Florida to New Hampshire. She works with her family and members of the community to bring them comfort and support. She’s also assisted by an attorney who helps her navigate through all the legal procedures. She’s fought for improved housing conditions, benefits, and fair wages. Cesaire and her group are currently fighting to get farm workers overtime pay in order to help alleviate some of their financial burdens.
While some farmers will pay their workers the minimum wage, other farms work on a “piece rate” basis, meaning workers are paid based on how many boxes they are able to fill. Workers don’t get paid any overtime and their work schedule depends entirely on weather conditions. According to the Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States, farmworkers are “largely a marginalized population, both socially and economically.”
In the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) published by the U.S. Department of Labor, farm workers work 42 hours per week and earn about $7.25 per hour on average. On the other hand, those who get paid based on the piece rate system earn less than the minimum wage.
Cesaire says while workers are given health insurance by their employers, taking time off to visit a clinic can be a burden. “Their medical insurance only covers clinical visits but sometimes they can’t even get to the clinic. They have to rely on drivers who are often too tired to drive them to the clinic,” said Cesaire.
Camyna Haitian Farmworkers and Migrants Association recently partnered with the Emory University’s Medical School’s South Georgia Farmworker Health Project, a program that provides free care to over 1,500 farmworkers and their families through pop-up clinics. Through this program, she’s been able to bring workers in Bainbridge, GA access to medical care at least twice per year.
“Working with Emory has helped enhance the work that we do. When they do these annual visits, I find them translators to ensure effective communications with care providers. At the pop-up clinics, we also provide toiletries, clothes, and other items to reduce their living expenses and increase their disposable income, most of which is sent to Haiti as remittances. So we try to bring them as much as we can,” said Cesaire.
While working conditions on the farms can be unimaginable and workers make next to nothing, their work is essential to American families and U.S. economy. The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that $135.5 billion worth of American agricultural products were exported around the world in 2016 and one U.S. farm feeds 165 people annually in the U.S. and abroad. There are more than two million farms in the United States.
Despite her herculean effort to empower Haitian farmworkers, Cesaire has received little support from Haitian-Americans who are best positioned to advance her work. For example, elected officials of Haitian descent have largely been unresponsive to her numerous outreach attempts. With the help of her children, family members, and a few volunteers, Cesaire continues to make a difference. Perseverance is in her blood. She often recounts growing up in Haiti and watching her mother and grandmother giving back to their communities despite countless challenges. She hopes to instill those same values in her children to ensure her family’s legacy of community service endures for future generation.
“There will always be people working on these farms, we just want to help improve their lives. We want them to be afforded the same rights as every other working person in this country,” she said.