A sermon from the Washington City Church of the Brethren on September 6, 2015
By: Katie Furrow
This weekend marks the celebration of Labor Day. Admittedly, until just recently, I had no real knowledge on what the purpose of Labor Day is or why we celebrate it, so, like any good Millennial, I went to the Internet: According to the US Department of Labor, Labor Day “is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers” which celebrates the “contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” It’s a very American ideal: celebrating the hard work that we’ve put into our jobs which creates economic success for ourselves and our families and maybe even for our country as a whole.
However, as people across the country tomorrow find themselves celebrating with cookouts and generally enjoying a day off from work or school, millions of our country’s laborers who work in agriculture have little to celebrate. These men, women, and even children—since current labor laws allow children to work in agriculture as early as age 12—feed our families every day, yet they face untold hardships in their own lives ranging from wage theft to work-induced health problems to living situations that are far below any standard that should be acceptable anywhere, especially in a place as wealthy as the US.
Farm workers play a prominent role in all of our lives. After all, where would we get our always available, conveniently affordable food from? Despite this, though, they are an abused portion of our society. Through the frequently used piece-work system for wages, most workers find themselves toiling in the field for at least eight hours a day, earning money only for what they produce. For instance, in Florida, workers are paid 85 cents for every 90 pound box of oranges they can pick. If they work at an average pace, that would end up being less than $7 per hour to be made for picking thousands of pounds of oranges. I don’t know about you, but if I were in that situation, I would work as hard as I could with as few stops for water or anything else in order to maximize my profit. And that’s a real problem when you’re in a place like Florida with high temperatures and exposure to the elements while doing physically exhausting work; people are basically being forced to trade their health for their wage.
An ongoing struggle for both men and women is the heavy use of pesticides in the fields. The chemicals that we must always be sure to wash off of our fruits and veggies frequently surround farm workers as the wind carries it into their breathing space from other fields, from improper handling of the chemicals due to a lack of proper safety training, or as they are made to return to work prematurely soon after their field has been sprayed—all in the name of quick profit. This can lead to health problems for anyone who works around the chemicals from general illness to cases of cancer.
Women in this role are often greeted with extra challenges. Beyond facing the equal struggles of men in the field as they fight for fair wages and safe working environments, many women are also expected to maintain the role of mother and caretaker, and consequently must lose out on precious paychecks in order to take care of their families. Or they sometimes never even receive paychecks as their employer illegally pays them through their husband’s paycheck—saving the company money they would have to pay on Social Security or other benefits while simultaneously keeping the woman from having any autonomy or legal rights. And exposure to those pesticides that I just mentioned can lead to infertility, difficult pregnancies, or birth defects.
Even more painful to consider, though, is the treatment of female farm workers at the hands of their employers. One survey from the National Farm Worker Ministry reported that 90 percent of female farm workers identified sexual harassment as a major problem in their workplace. There are countless stories of women from throughout the industry and across the country who have endured a host of sexual violence in order to keep their jobs, to be paid a fair wage, or in the case of women who are working illegally in the country, out of fear that they will be reported to immigration authorities if they don’t comply with their supervisor’s actions. And all of these things often add up to keep these women from ever reporting these crimes to the police. These women live with a constant fear of harassment or sexual violence simply for trying to do their job and to make ends meet.
It would seem like this is an issue of the modern era, only becoming a problem since the United States farm industry has taken off, requiring millions of people to tend and harvest the fields. However, mistreatment of workers is nothing new, and our scripture, in part, highlights the potential for this in Biblical times. But it also signifies the hope of what a good employer can look like.
The story of Ruth is a familiar one: Ruth is the daughter-in-law of a woman named Naomi, and within the first few verses of the first book, Ruth, Naomi, and Naomi’s other daughter-in-law have all come to find themselves widowed. Being widowed women in this time meant that their rights were incredibly limited as their value was tied to the men in their lives—husbands, fathers, or sons. Recognizing this, Naomi releases her daughters-in-law to return to their families to seek out a new start while Naomi herself plans to return to her native home of Israel from where she is living in Moab. One daughter goes, but Ruth stays, vowing her loyalty and love to Naomi.
They make their way to Israel, and it is there that Ruth declares she will go out, looking for work as a way to support herself and Naomi. It’s the harvest time, so Ruth finds herself in the fields that belong to Boaz, a “prominent rich man” from the community, who (spoiler alert) is both a relative of Naomi and Ruth’s future husband.
When Boaz arrives to his field, it is immediately obvious that he both respects and is respected by his workers as he greets them with a blessing. Boaz makes sure that his workers are taken care of by providing them with food and drink while they work, and it is even later revealed that during part of the harvest, he works right alongside with them.
What is more striking, though, is how he treats Ruth upon realizing she is following behind his workers, gleaning in the field. Ruth is an outsider in every sense of the word; she is not his employee, she is a widowed woman, she is a foreigner in Israel. This combination could be dangerous for Ruth; she is vulnerable both legally and physically. Boaz could have taken this opportunity to exploit Ruth and to harm her, to use her body and her presence as a trade to let her glean the fields or to even hover a false promise of protection over her head.
But the beauty in this moment is that Boaz didn’t do this! He recognized Ruth’s need and worked to fulfill it well beyond her expectation. Ruth wanted the opportunity to glean the field after his workers passed through harvesting; all she wanted were whatever leftovers were to be had. She was willing to work hard for this, as Boaz’s workers noted that she had not rested at any point over the day following behind them. Boaz agrees to let her pick from what is left in the field, later in the chapter, he also tells his workers to let her take from the good harvest as well. And he offers her food and water as she needs it. And he tells her that he has told the men working to leave her alone, protecting her from the exploitation that could come from any other source.
Instead of taking advantage of her, Boaz did the complete opposite to empower Ruth in her work in order to make sure she had the best possible chance at providing for herself and Naomi. Boaz was a perfect example of how a boss should treat those in his employment. However, many farm owners and supervisors today haven’t taken this story to heart, and the consequence of that are the unfair labor standards that I alluded to earlier.
It is very unlikely that any of us will ever become the owners or supervisors of farms of any size and we will never have to make the choice of whether or not to pay our workers fair wages or to treat them unjustly. But this doesn’t get us off the hook so quickly. Through our purchasing power, we can either choose to support or deny such inequality. By consciously choosing to say “I will purchase things that have an ethical and fair source” we can combat this system. Sometimes, we may not be capable of this; for instance, as a full-time volunteer, I know that I certainly cannot always do so because I literally can’t afford it. But by even recognizing that our food system is imperfect and that we’ll strive to do just a little bit better next time, or by planting gardens that break the consumer cycle, or by petitioning industrial farms to make changes to their worker treatment, or by otherwise showing our brothers and sisters in the field that we care about them and are standing in solidarity with their struggle, we can subvert this system. We can show that it is of great value to us to make sure that they have been given everything that they need to be just as successful in this country and in their lives as we have been given.
As members of the Body of Christ, it is imperative that our choices and actions reflect our faith, and one of the biggest parts of that is standing for others when they have been beaten down so many times that they struggle to stand back up again. And farm workers have been beaten down in so many ways. We have been given an example of how to treat farm workers through Boaz, and while we may not be the ones directly providing paychecks, we can still take actions to build a more fair system and to help our brothers and sisters stand back up once again.
This weekend is a celebration of the hard work that we put in as a country to succeed as individuals, as families, and as a nation. Wouldn’t it be great to know that we can celebrate this with a clean conscious that everyone has been successful and that everyone is valued for the hard work that they’ve put in to this effort toward success? And maybe, if enough of us choose to recognize the need for change and take even one small, concrete step in making a difference, then each of those small steps will add up to one big, change-creating movement. At the end of this chapter in Ruth, once Ruth has returned home from a full day’s work with a lot of barley and Boaz’s blessing, Naomi proclaims, “Blessed is the man who took notice of you.” Not for our sake, but for the sake of our brothers and sisters working hard in the fields, let’s be the people who take notice. And then let’s be the people who get up and do something about it. Amen.