Considering the farmworker: What I’ve learned

I’m a Wall Street technology manager. Two years ago I set out, citizen journalist style, to learn and write about people whose lives are very different from mine: migrant farmworkers. These are the men, women and children who harvest most of the fresh produce you see at America’s grocery stores.

I’ll share 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 isn’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 around a million farmworkers in the United States, give or take a hundred thousand. Most are from Mexico or Nicaragua. Desperate for work, most 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, following the work and living in temporary labor camps. Some workers stay put year-round. 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.

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.

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, incenting abuse.

Naturally, most farmworkers stay mum about their job conditions no matter how bad. One exception is the man I heard last summer 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 farmwork 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 farmwork 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.

A farmworker relaxing on his tractor at sunset
Photos by Michael Durbin

It ain’t just tobacco

Photo by Heather Anderson
Photo by Heather Anderson

From my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore…

Thanks to a recent feature on The Daily Show and a slew of media attention (links below) a lot more people are now aware of the problem of children working in U.S. tobacco fields. This attention is a very good thing, but the problem goes way beyond tobacco: There are kids — mostly Latino, mostly dirt poor — harvesting crops of all kinds across America.

The Human Rights Watch report that ignited this attention is but one of numerous accounts of child labor in agriculture and was based on interviews with just 133 kids. Some estimate there are more than 400,000 children, maybe more than 700,000, working on U.S. farms.

The general public may not know about these kids but plenty of insiders do. The photos accompanying this post are from the 2009 Children in the Fields project by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. It drew the same conclusions as the Human Rights Watch study and was not limited to tobacco. Melissa Bailey of NC Field, a non-profit based in Kinston, North Carolina, also sees kids at work all the time. And she doesn’t have to go far. “Last season I stopped counting after visiting 100 children in nearby fields.”

Child labor anywhere is wrong. Child labor in U.S. agriculture is unconscionable for any number of reasons. First is the simple fact agriculture is among the most dangerous occupations for workers of any age.

Accidents with farm machinery can maim a child in an instant; heat stress can (and does) kill; and exposure to toxic pesticides is especially hard on kids. Their bodies aren’t done growing so development is impaired, and their smaller body mass makes the same dose of pesticides more harmful to them than to an adult-sized body.

A decent education is a pipe dream for many farmworking kids. As migrants they hopscotch from one school to another as a matter of course. And they miss a lot. Around half drop out before college, sucked for life into the vortex of poverty.

Photo by Heather Anderson
Photo by Heather Anderson

How can this be?

Child labor laws were part of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Institutional racism still permeated U.S. law back then so jobs held by blacks, such as crop work, were easily excluded. It didn’t help that the agricultural economics formed in the days of slavery still depended on cheap labor. In fact it still does. And while African Americans no longer hold most farmworking jobs, another minority has taken their place. Something like 80% of all crop workers in America are Hispanic. And more than half live below the poverty line.

Farmworking children belong to a minority class and they are very poor. That, it appears, is why 2014 is so much like 1914 for so many kids.

If they must work it would be nice if farmworking kids could at least count on the minimum hourly wage of $7.25. But legally they can be paid $3 less than everyone else. This is from the Department of Labor web site:

“Employees under 20 years of age may be paid $4.25 per hour during their first consecutive 90 calendar days of employment.”

These agriculture exemptions have been around a long time. And today, the agribusiness lobby uses switchblade politics—brilliantly—to keep these out-dated laws firmly in place.

In 2011 the Obama administration tried to make a change. A small change. They attempted to limit the type of hazardous work the youngest kids could perform in agriculture. They proposed to simply apply the same rules to agriculture that apply to, say, steel-working.

The effort was met by a campaign of blatant disinformation, such as Sarah Palin claiming the law would prevent young people from working on family farms. That simply wasn’t true. When industry-backed Republicans threatened to defund the Department of Labor, the president turned tail not just for the day but for all of his days. The language from the DOL could not have left Obama supporters more slack-jawed:

“… this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”

So much for Hope.

Americans are led to think of their country as the international gold standard for human rights. In many areas we are. But how can we let little kids work in tobacco fields when countries like Russia, Kazakhstan and India ban it? Maybe some global shaming will do us some good.

History gives me hope. It took a half century of serious effort to enact any child labor laws at all in this country, and more than a century just to abolish slavery. These things take time. And time has a way of making things right. I’ve always liked how Martin Luther King, Jr. put it:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”.

It can’t bend soon enough for the kids in our fields.


For more on this topic…

MADE IN THE USA: Child Labor & Tobacco
Human Rights Watch

Nicoteens
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Why Are Children Working in American Tobacco Fields?
by Gabriel Thompson
The Nation

The Harvest / La Cocheca
The Story of the Children Who Feed America

Child Labor in North Carolina Tobacco Fields
WUNC Radio, The State of Things

Children Don’t Belong in Tobacco Fields
New York Times

Children At Work
A Glimpse into the lives of child farmworkers in the United States
Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs