By Manuel Guzman Interviewed and translated by Richard Mandelbaum, CATA Aug 23, 2010
José Manuel Guzmán is a Lead Organizer with el Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas (CATA). Mr. Guzmán is a former agricultural worker from Moroleon, Guanajuato, Mexico, who worked as a mushroom harvester in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania beginning in 1978 and was one of the leaders in the Kaolin Mushroom Worker Strike in April of 1993. Trained in the Popular Education technique, he was hired by CATA in 1994 as an organizer and educator. Mr. Guzmán was trained by the Farmworker Health and Safety Institute (FHSI) as a Pesticide Educator, Handler Educator and Master Trainer for Pesticide Educators. He is certified by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services as an HIV Counselor and currently sits on the Board of Directors of Camden Regional Legal Services in New Jersey. He also represents CATA on the New Jersey Anti-Poverty Network and was recently named to the Board of Directors of FHSI. As an organizer, Mr. Guzmán has educated thousands of farmworkers on environmental health issues and their rights.
Richard: What is your experience with fair trade Manuel: CATA is one of the partners in the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP), an effort to bring fair trade to the United States. I have gotten involved in the last couple of years – in 2009 I interviewed workers during audits on participating farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I have also participated in some meetings of the Domestic Fair Trade Association (DFTA) as a representative of CATA. And later this year, I will begin to train organizers from the Farmworker Association of Florida in how to conduct audits and educate workers about their legal rights, also as part of AJP.
Richard: What in your background and experience do you bring to this work Manuel: I worked for fourteen years in the mushroom farms in Pennsylvania and in some fruit orchards in Maryland. My experience is that this work is too demanding – it is very heavy work that results in many health and safety problems, both in the work and in the housing. In the mushroom houses, workers have to climb up and down ladders all day. To reach the second floor of mushroom beds, workers walk along wooden planks which are often slippery and not nailed down and sometimes in poor condition. Injuries from falling are common. Employers also do not always inform workers about what chemicals are being sprayed or when, both at the worksite and in the housing. Speaking of the housing, there are also often serious problems with overcrowding and poor conditions. So I am familiar with the problems people are facing, and for CATA I assess the working and living conditions of farmworkers and also train workers using the Popular Education methodology to address the injustices they are facing. All this work translates to the work we are doing in our fair trade project – not only how do you assess what conditions people are working under, but also how do you empower them to play an active role in their relationships with their employers
Richard: How can fair trade help farmworkers Manuel: If it’s done right, fair trade can be a real benefit to everyone involved – the farmer, the worker, the consumer. Everyone involved has to be committed to the idea that everyone has rights – from the consumer to the farmer to the worker, even to the people selling the product. Related to what I was saying earlier about the pesticides and other chemicals used in the workplace, everyone has a stake in improving that situation. By protecting workers, we are also producing healthier food, organic food that benefits those who buy it and eat it as well. From what I have seen [at AJP], the farmers and organizations involved have a real vision to be leaders – to improve things not only for themselves but for everyone, and to resolve disagreements in a respectful way, knowing that 100% of problems will never be solved, but that we can work together to improve things. For instance, recognizing and respecting workers who have been there for a longer time (seniority), rather than replacing workers as they get older and maybe a bit slower.
Richard: How do fair wages play into this Manuel: Like I said earlier, the work is too demanding and becomes unhealthy. Because farmworkers are not earning a decent pay, they push themselves harder than they should just to make enough to survive. On most farms, workers are only receiving minimum wage and without any benefits. For instance, in the mushroom farms, as well as other types of farms, a lot of people suffer from back problems, even at a young age, because of the need to be extending arms into the mushroom beds and the speed at which the companies require them to work. So, if, instead of this situation, people were earning a decent wage with some benefits and had designated days of rest, they would be in a much better situation.
Richard: Any last thoughts to share Manuel: I see a lot of enthusiasm for this – enthusiasm to advance ourselves, to move forward in a way that is more cooperative and that takes everyone into account. We need to work together to figure out ways to make the program grow.