Nargess Shadbeh ’82, JD ’85 and Julie Samples JD ’01 Ensuring the Rights of Farmworkers
Imagine picking strawberries for hours every day while being paid less than minimum wage or not being paid at all. Indigenous farmworkers from southern Mexico frequently face that scenario in Oregon.
Nargess Shadbeh and Julie Samples are committed to improving the lives of these laborers, whose numbers are estimated at 40,000 annually during harvest season. The majority are Mixtecos, Triquis, and Zapotecos from Oaxaca, and Kanjobal from Guatemala.
Shadbeh is statewide director for the Oregon Law Center’s Farmworker Program, which provides legal services to Oregon farmworkers. She determines program priorities and outreach activities, and developed the organization’s Indigenous Farmworker Project to respond to the population’s legal needs. The project, begun in 2002, is only the second such program in the United States.
Shadbeh learned about farmworker issues as an undergraduate studying with Don Balmer, U.G. Dubach Professor Emeritus of Political Science. “I wrote my thesis in economics on the plight of farmworkers in the Willamette Valley,” she says. “The work I did with Professor Balmer opened my eyes to third-world conditions in my own backyard. That’s what motivated me to do this kind of work.”
Samples became concerned about indigenous Mexican workers during the 1990s. As program associate for Global Exchange’s Exploring California project, she organized tours to educate people about food production and pesticide use.
Now director of the Indigenous Farmworker Project, Samples travels from her Woodburn office to labor camps and introduces indigenous farmworkers to Oregon’s basic labor laws and their legal rights. She also represents them in claims regarding wages, substandard working conditions, discrimination, and sexual harassment. In addition, she educates health care and state agencies about indigenous farmworkers’ cultural beliefs and customs.
“If we want to ensure equal access to the legal system, we need to reach out to people who don’t speak the dominant language,” says Samples.
She speaks English and Spanish, but most of her clients are Mixtecos who speak no English and limited Spanish. Two Mixteco-speaking employees help her communicate with clients and develop public service announcements for radio in Mixteco, a language that is rarely written.
“We’re reaching a population that’s not only underserved, but is barely served at all. The real reward of the program is when our clients realize there are people in Oregon who care about them and want them to be treated fairly.”
—by Jennifer Carter