Considering the farmworker

ChipsOnBucketGiven how corporatized, mechanized and super-sized American food production has become, I wonder how many people know that the harvesting of fruits and vegetables is still done mostly by hand. It is.

Much of what you see in the produce aisle was picked by migrant farmworkers. These men, women and children live their lives on the move, going wherever the crops are, laboring out of public view to earn poverty level wages.

I’ve known a little about farmworkers since the early 1970s when my parents stopped buying lettuce until farmworkers got a raise. This was when Cesar Chavez was doing his thing, and I remember it striking a nerve, the apparent injustice of it all. It’s been in the back of my mind ever since. Now it’s back in front as I learn how little has changed in four decades.

I’m a software engineer for the banking industry.  In 2013 I set out, citizen journalist style, to learn and write about these people whose lives are very different from mine.

I’ll summarize what I learned with the caveat I am but one observer who learned much of this secondhand, from farmworker advocates, social workers and others. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to converse at length with farmworkers, though I did speak with a few and visited forty or so labor camps. I’ve not spoken with a single farm owner, or grower, who hires these workers. And though I’ve read nearly all the articles and books I can get my hands on I’ve certainly not read everything.

So with that out of the way, here’s what I believe to be true:

There are just over a million farmworkers in America. Or maybe 3 million. Nobody seems sure but the lowest count I’ve seen is a million so let’s go with that. At least half are undocumented and most are foreign-born, from Mexico and Central America.

Desperate for work, many risked their lives crossing into the United States. Many still refer to such immigrants as “illegal” but I’m with those who prefer “undocumented.” How can a human life be against the law?

Most farmworkers are truly migrant, moving from one corner of the country to another. Some obtain H2A visas and migrate from homes in Mexico to the US and back each year. Most migrant farmworkers live in temporary labor camps. Some workers stay put year-round in their own homes. These are known as seasonal farmworkers and they tend to find non-agricultural work in the winter.

Most camps I’ve been to are sad places: filthy and ill-maintained, some with outhouses and water unsafe to drink. Don’t expect to see one yourself. Most are well out of the view of any highway, hidden beyond trees or down long dirt roads. Some of it is so unsafe and unclean it is simply unfit for human habitation. Not all migrant labor camps are like this, but one hovel off the highway is one too many.

Farmworkers are paid very little, sometimes less than minimum wage, because someone desperate for work and ever fearful of deportation is easily exploited in this way. Some are hired directly by a grower but many are hired by contratistas or nickeleros who shield growers from direct responsibility for their workers. Some of these middlemen, if stories I’ve heard are true, are unspeakably cruel.

Farmworkers in the US earn around $11,000 a year. The current poverty threshold is around $12,000. The so-called piece rate—what a farmworker earns per bucket of crops—hasn’t increased in many cases for decades. It hovers around 50 cents.

The paltry pay, by and large, is not due to unkind growers or contractors. It’s a system thing. U.S. growers must accept crop prices dictated by massive grocery chains and fast food buyers. These oligopolists will of course point the finger of blame at you and me: consumers who will almost always prefer the tomato or hamburger with the lowest price. And they are right.

Farmworkers on H2A temporary work visas, sometimes called guest workers, earn an hourly wage set by law, ranging from $10.00 to $13.59 depending on the state. They tend to live in nicer quarters as well. Still the program has plenty of critics. Growers think it’s overly bureaucratic. And labor advocates don’t like how guest workers are forced to remain with one employer, incentivizing abuse.

Farmworkers are subject to work hazards you won’t find elsewhere. Green Tobacco Sickness is one of the worst, in which rubbing against wet tobacco leaves for a day can put as much nicotine into your system as smoking multiple packs of cigarettes. Heat stress is a killer. And God only knows the long-term effect of pesticides farmworkers are exposed to.

Naturally, most farmworkers stay mum about their job conditions no matter how bad. One exception is the man I heard as he stood in front of two visiting Members of British Parliament and a U.S. Congresswoman. He told of standing atop a mobile tobacco harvester, dizzy from nearby pesticide spray. Miscalculating his reach, his hand went under the belt and into the gear mechanism. It chopped off his fingertip like a cigar cutter. It was hours before he made it to the hospital—the grower refused to take him—where he racked up a bill he couldn’t pay. Because he was fired.

Migrant farm work is not slavery and farmworkers are not slaves. Still, as I consider all this, I can’t help but hear echoes of slavery, especially in the South where the economic reliance on ultra-cheap labor was ingrained back when slaves really did all this work. Consider the agricultural exemptions to federal labor laws.

Did you know farmworkers are not entitled to overtime pay? That there are different child labor laws for farmworkers? Kids as young as 12, in some cases 10, can work legally in the fields, subject to heat stroke, pesticide exposure and a long list of other health and safety risks. And when school is out children can work around the clock without breaking any laws.

The exemptions have been around since 1938. That’s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to include them in the Fair Labor Standards Act to appease the South. Slavery had been abolished decades earlier but practices like debt peonage and share-cropping kept farmworker wages ultralow. The South liked it that way. It still does.

My lesson in migrant farm work makes me think of Martin Luther King’s observation about the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. The occupational discrimination against farmworkers in America is clearly unjust.

I know better than to expect sweeping changes any time soon. Republicans now control most state governments in the South, and both houses of Congress in Washington, and it’s usually the other party who makes things right for the working class in this country. Raising the federal minimum wage remains a pipe dream, as does immigration reform.

What to do with this knowledge? I don’t know. I keep thinking of that arc of history. I truly believe it does bend toward justice. But it is, indeed, long.

Clothes drying next to a harvesting bucket at a migrant farmworker camp in North Carolina. Above: Plastic chips collected harvesting sweet peppers, one per bucket, each worth 42 cents, wait to be tallied at the end of a farmworker’s day.

Text and photos by Michael Durbin