This is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said, ‘We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.’
–Edward R. Murrow, 1960, CBS News
In 1960 CBS aired a television documentary, “Harvest of Shame” that revealed the disturbing plight of America’s migrants who worked in the “sweatshops of the soil.” Producer Lowe said that it aired after Thanksgiving to “stress the fact that much of the food cooked for Thanksgiving [was] picked by migratory workers” and to “shock the consciousness of the nation.” Indeed, the footage was shocking, showing families of workers working and living in extreme, dehumanizing poverty; and the same scenes today should shame the consciousness of the nation even more.
In 1970, NBC returned to Florida to see what had changed in 10 years since “Harvest of Shame.” “White Paper: The Migrants” showed that not much had changed. The 1980 sequel concluded the same thing ten years later. Likewise, in 1998 for NBC’s “Children of the Harvest,” which followed the lives of migrant children who worked the fields beside their families. Even though a farm worker must legally be at least 12 years old to work, they regularly found 5 and 6 year old children in the fields. The youngest child working was only two years old. Last year, NBC aired a sequel, following the Cruz family, as the parents and even their 10 year old Ulises worked in the fields. That same year the independent documentary “The Harvest” followed 3 of an estimated 500,000 children who work in America’s fields. For Zulema Lopez, 12, one of her earliest childhood memories is of her mother teaching her how to pick and clean strawberries. She makes 64 dollars a week. “I think I’m helping her [my mother] with that.”
Migrant farm workers average from 10 to 12,000 dollars a year. Adult migrant workers are often paid below the minimum wage, but children field workers who are under the age of 16 are not even entitled to minimum wage. Many work for only 2 or 3 dollars an hour. Farm work is 4 times more dangerous than any other industry with more than 100,000 children and adolescents being injured every year. Children expose themselves to long term illnesses from the sun, pesticides, and hours spent bending over. The agricultural industry accounts for 40% of all work place fatalities for youths. 162 children died in agricultural work during a 5 year period in the 1990s.
America’s agriculture relies on undocumented immigrants who make up over half of the work force, but it also relies on documented immigration in the form of the H2 guestworker program. A 2007 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center entitled “Close to Slavery” reported:
Bound to a single employer and without access to legal resources, guestworkers are:
• routinely cheated out of wages;
• forced to mortgage their futures to obtain low-wage, temporary jobs;
• held virtually captive by employers or labor brokers who seize their documents;
• forced to live in squalid conditions; and,
• denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries.
U.S Rep. Charles Rangel recently put it this way: ‘This guestworker program’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.’
Congressman Rangel’s conclusion is not mere hyperbole — and not the first time such a comparison has been made. Former Department of Labor official Lee G. Williams described the old “bracero” program — the guestworker program that brought thousands of Mexican nationals to work in the United States during and after World War II — as a system of ‘legalized slavery.’ In practice, there is little difference between the bracero program and the current H-2 guestworker program.
The H-2 guestworker system also can be viewed as a modern-day system of indentured servitude. But unlike European indentured servants of old, today’s guestworkers have no prospect of becoming U.S. citizens. When their work visas expire, they must leave the United States. They are, in effect, the disposable workers of the U.S. economy.
In a Congressional hearing on this report, the SPLC’s Mary Bauer testified:
In some industries [for guest workers] wage-and-hour violations are the norm, rather than the exception. These are not subtle violations of the law but the wholesale cheating of workers. We have seen crews paid as little as $2 per hour, each worker cheated out of hundreds of dollars per week. Because of their vulnerability, guestworkers are unlikely to complain about these violations, and public wage-and-hour enforcement has minimal practical impact.
In 1984 members of Congress debated an amendment to expand the H-2 guestworker program. Rep. Henry Gonza of Texas declared:
This amendment would even offend a slave-driver. It’s a rent-a-slave amendment. It will create the vilenst, most evil conditions possible.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers‘s Campaign for Fair Food targets the economic slavery they face in the tomato fields. This led to the “One Penny More” project that calls for large corporations, national super markets and fast food chains, that purchase tomatoes to pay one penny more per pound directly to the tomato pickers. This would nearly double their wages from 40cents per 32 pound basket to 72 cents. Major corporations such as McDonalds and TacoBell have agreed, but the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange countered by saying that it would not only not help distribute the money to the workers but that it would also fine growers 100,000 if they disobeyed the Exchange by choosing to distribute the money, paying a cent more per pound to their workers. This led to a congressional hearing in which the the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange claimed that its workers could earn 12 dollars an hour. Sen. Dick Durbin did the math to point out that that was “not physically possible” as it would require the pickers to fill an empty the 32 pound baskets ever two minutes.
Economic slavery in various forms- from crushing debt and poverty to hunger- is clearly what drives many of America’s migrant farm workers, parents and children, to do the hottest, hardest, and lowest paying work in the country; but that is not the worst of it- physical slavery is. In a congressional hearing and in 9 court cases over the last decade physical slavery has been the subject. Slavery has repeatedly been found in the orange and tomato groves of Florida. Over a thousand slaves have been freed. Many of them were indigenous Guatemalans of Mexicans working under armed guard. In most cases passports were taken and physical threats, violence, and surveillance were used to keep workers for working for less than 20 dollars a week. The CIW’s Anti-Slavery Campaign targets physical slavery in the fields while its Campaign for Fair Food targets the consistent economic slavery.
Every year migrant farm workers go from picking tomatoes in Alabama to oranges in Florida. Many of them head to the Redlands Migrant Christian Association campus in Mulberry, Florida. Over a dozen families have already arrived, but the campus is not open yet because they’ve arrived to early this year. The tomato season isn’t over. The fathers are still picking the fields in Alabama, while the mothers and children, who are often U.S. citizens, are now seeking refuge in Florida. Due to HB56, they left early because they feared that staying could lead to them being separated permanently by deportation.
When Alabama and Georgia implemented anti-immigrant legislation, it caused an exodus of farm workers that left crops rotting in the fields. Georgia is facing 390 million dollars in losses. Alabama is also face hundreds of millions of dollars in losses as the rotting continues. Alabama’s HB56 does not allow courts to uphold contracts with undocumented immigrants, leaving undocumented workers even more exploitable than before. In one of its most blatant examples of racism, HB56 implements E-verify but exempts “casual domestic labor,” allowing subservient, back-bending labor to continue to serve upper-class households. But it gets worse.
Alabama, which is failing at attracting free people to take the jobs left behind, is considering sending prisoners into the fields to pick the rotting crops. Georgia has already started to send prisoners, “legal criminals,” to pick crops due to a lack of “illegal immigrants.” This is a transition from economic slavery to physical slavery and it is not working well. Reports indicate that the prisoners are not picking fast enough, as slow as 1/3rd the rate of the previous labor force.
Comedian Stephen Colbert saw this coming. After spending one day as farm worker, he testified to Congress, explaining why “so few Americans are clambering to begin an exciting career as a seasonal migrant field worker.” He testified: “It is really, really hard [...] You have to spend all day bending over. It turns out, and I did not no this, most soil is at ground level. If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we make the earth waist-high? Come on, where is the funding?” He also realized why the prisoners were not working as hard: “Turns out, Americans who’ve chosen a life of crime don’t have quite the same work ethic as Guatemalans who’ve walked through 500 miles of desert to feed their children.”
This use of prison labor in the fields has led to television footage and claims of slavery, led by Cuentame, a latino news and community site, which release an online video called “Alabama’s Shame: Modern Day Slavery?” that connects the dots between the nation’s toughest, enforcement-only immigration policy and a fleeing or imprisoned undocumented immigrant work force and prisoners being considered to do the left behind farm work. In another online video called “Immigrants For Sale,” Cuentame has led the fight against the private prison industry, which has made billions of dollars off the detainment of immigrants and helped write and pass Arizona’s SB1070.
This industry makes 5 billion dollars a year but would not have survived without the boom of the detained immigrant population. Over the past three decades, the U.S. has gone from detaining an average of 54 undocumented immigrants a day in 1981 to over 32,000 in 2011 with the help of contracts to private prison companies, changes after 9/11, federal legislation like Secure Communities, state legislation like SB1070 and HB56, and ICE’s goal of deporting 400,000 people a year. Billions of dollars have been earned as a domestic war is being waged in minority, low-income communities across the nation. This war has not secured communities but has militarized and terrorized them. While failing to stop illegal immigration, the selling of drugs, or the threat of terrorism, this war has managed to view people, families, communities, and civil liberties as disposable by instituting policies of mass incarceration and mass deportation. Like slavery, this war criminalizes whole groups of people and makes money off of their treatment.
While HB 56 will help the tax payer funded private prison industry by escalating this war, it won’t help the refugized families or the farmers they left behind. Keith Smith, an Alabama sweet potato farmer said he is at risk of losing his farm because Americans have not been able to d0 the work required. He argues that the market, not farmers like himself, set the wages on produce, as he is competing with crops from states without HB56 and from countries south of the border without any regulation. One American worker, Melinda, tried to work on his farm for a few days. She says had to quit early the day before because she “couldn’t handle it.” “It’s back breaking.” At forty cents per bucket she made 30 dollars a day because she couldn’t keep pace with the experienced workers who make 70 to a 100 dollars a day. “I mean, it ain’t really worth the gas I’m spending to get here.”
Keith Smith understands that his workers had been undocumented: “If they got documentation, they got a better job than working for me.” When looking at the issue of undocumented workers, some on the right will blame the migrants who do the work and some on the left might blame the farmers that pay the wages; but Keith Smith sees their hypocrisy and he also knows how to fix the issue: “If you want to get rid of illegal immigrants, quit eating.” Only then can you throw the first stone by attacking undocumented immigrants. But if you ate food this Thanksgiving, then don’t bite the (undocumented, guestworker, migrant, slave, incarcerated, underpaid, underfed, or child) hand that fed you.
1960: The Harvest
The Harvest Trailer
Farm Workers and Congress Claim Slavery in Florida
Immigrants for Sale: Politics & the Private Prison Industry
PBS News: For Undocumented Workers, It’s Not-So-Sweet-Home Alabama