Grant supports education efforts for farmworkers

MARION — The women gathered snugly in the cozy mobile home located along a quiet dirt road.

All of them brought their children as well as tray after tray of food to share with each other as they celebrated an early — and nontraditional — Thanksgiving meal of rice and tamales and other Mexican and Central American dishes.

"Those with the least give the most," noted Harold Alvárez of Colombia, who attended the dinner with his wife, to help out the organizers from Farmworker Legal Services of New York’s Women’s Institute.

The couple is friends with Alina Díaz, an outreach worker with Farmworker Legal Services of New York (FLSNY), who — with co-worker Cheryl Gee — provided the turkey for the day at the home of a migrant worker from Hidalgo, Mexico.

But food was not the only thing that was shared during the event, which was also designed to provide information about the resources and solicit participants’ assistance with a recent initiative the agency has undertaken to improve the lives of migrant workers.

Many of the women present receive additional support during the holidays through a special project created last year by the agency’s Women’s Institute, explained Gee, a FLSNY domestic-violence educator and outreach worker. Through donations from community groups, churches and individuals, more than 10 families will have gifts under the tree this year. Each of the families is headed by a single mother, she noted.

"I think it is very nice of them to help us," said Marta Vázquez, who attended the dinner with her three young children..

In addition to providing gifts for the children, the agency has also helped her obtain a u-visa, which is available to immigrants who become victims of domestic abuse. But life for her family remains difficult, as jobs have been hard to come by. So the holiday project is even more helpful to her, added Vázquez of Chiapas, Mexico

"I don’t have a car," she added. "I don’t know how to drive. Times are tough."

In addition to providing support to families like that of Vázquez, FLSNY is now looking to improve the safety of migrant workers in the fields and factories where they labor through a grant from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

During the Nov. 21 gathering, FLSNY’s Peg Billyard and Linda Donahue from Cornell University — with translation from Alvárez — explained the project and how input from the women would be crucial to developing a safety training program that could eventually be used statewide. The women sat shoulder to shoulder in a tight circle in the small living room as they listened to the presentation.

The grant will "help farmworkers recognize dangerous situations and … take action to prevent accidents and illnesses," said Billyard, an information analyst.

Training sessions also will include information about the workers’ rights on a federal level, she added, since a state farmworker labor-rights bill recently was defeated. Those involved with the initiative also will help farmworkers who want to file complaints complete the necessary paperwork, Billyard said.

"The law says that you should not get hurt or sick because of your job," remarked Donahue. "We want to help you avoid getting sick or hurt. … If your employer does not listen to your complaints, FLSNY will be there to help you."

Ofelia Avalos said the initiative sounds like a good idea.

"Accidents are always happening in the fields," said Avalos from Jalisco, Mexico, who works at a cabbage factory in the winter months. "(Workers) need information in order to know that this kind of help exists."

The first phase of the safety project will be an assessment of the workers’ needs, which is why the two women emphasized the need to get contact information from the women at the Nov. 21 dinner, said Billyard.

FLSNY applied for the $85,000 Suzanne Harwood grant from the U.S. Department of Labor this summer, which was a difficult season for workers in the fields, Billyard explained during a Nov. 17 interview at FLSNY offices on Culver Road in Rochester.

In addition to facing heat exhaustion, Billyard said workers suffered several accidents including ones in which a woman was suspected of being mauled by a bull, a worker died while rescuing another from a methane truck accident, and a worker was killed on the road while walking home. Billyard said she also received calls from workers complaining that they had insufficient head coverage and water while laboring under the hot sun, she added.

The agency has taken steps to train workers by teaming up with Rural & Migrant Ministry — an Albany-based ecumenical organization dedicated to social justice — to open a worker-education center in Lyons. This summer, the center began offering worker-education programs including information on pesticides, Billyard added.

The OSHA grant will allow the agency staff to obtain more in-depth information on the hazards workers face and will help staff learn what kind of training workers need, Donahue added. With that information, FLSNY staff can determine whether seminars, video presentations or other methods will work best to convey that information, she said. Focus groups also will be conducted with health-agency staff and services providers who work with migrant workers.

When the training sessions begins next spring, the project also aims to assess the workers’ literacy needs, Donahue noted.

"We don’t have a good sense of that," she said. "(The project) is not just about content."

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