The Presbyterian Church USA recently organized a national day of fasting and witness, taking on a fast-food giant, The Wendy’s Company, with the ostensible goal of ending sexual violence and human rights abuse against farm workers that the corporation allegedly participates in. As with many mainline churches, helping farmworkers is a significant focus of its missions. As with the other churches, the compassion, while admirable, when combined with progressive ideology and economic ignorance, both abundant in the churches, leads to misplaced priorities and actions.
At issue is the fact that Wendy’s refuses to join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) Fair Food Program, which is coordinating another major event in March to pressure the company. Immokalee is an area in Florida where the primary crop is tomatoes, using mainly migrant workers. Tomatoes are an important ingredient in hamburgers and other fast food items, and thus, those companies are major tomato buyers.
Over the years, there have been stories of rapes and sexual abuse, slavery and forced labor, and other human rights abuses by farm owners and managers, going back to a 1960 documentary called “Harvest of Shame.” I don’t think that many people would justify rape, sexual abuse, slavery, forced labor, or any other actual abuses of the rights of the individuals involved, regardless of the circumstances. A farmer who engages in any of those things is a criminal. There are laws and attached punishments for those crimes. It is a good thing that the coalition (CIW) has drawn attention to those abuses. If those things are still happening, in Immokalee or anywhere else, it is right for church leaders to call on politicians and public administrators to do the fundamental job of government: protect the rights of each individual.
The CIW and the churches are, however, not focused now on the real rights of the individuals to their lives, their liberty, or their property. They are aboard the social-justice bandwagon with all of its ideological baggage. There are, however, understandable, identifiable reasons that wages are low for farm workers. Farm labor is very low-skill. There are literally hundreds of millions of people in the United States alone who are capable if doing the work. It may be physically hard labor, it may be hot work out in the Florida or California sun, but the wage of a particular type of work depends on the supply and demand for the skills. With a very large potential supply of labor for a given level of demand, the wage will be low. The more you artificially raise the wage, the more competition is drawn to the work and the less demand there will be for it. It is not a matter of dignity. It is a matter economics.
If the Presbyterian Compassion, Peace, and Justice ministry or any other religious group really wants to help farm workers in the long run, there are two things that they can do to yield actual good results. First, and most importantly, they can put the pressure where it belongs, on government officials and law enforcement to ensure that rape, slavery, or other crimes are swiftly and adequately punished. Secondly, they can encourage farm workers to leave farm work, to develop skills that will pay more, and to migrate to areas with more opportunity. They can set up training centers for them to learn skills as carpenters, plumbers, heavy equipment operators, and other higher paying trades. Encourage them to become entrepreneurs, to help themselves by helping others solve real problems they face, and offer such entrepreneurs assistance through education, training, and financing.
There are all sorts of ways to help people improve their own lives. Teaching them about economic reality is one of the most fundamental.