The harvest of shame continues

By: - November 6, 2009 4:37 pm

And most of the N.C. congressional delegation doesn't appear to give a damn

Forty-nine years ago this month – the time in which most Americans gorge themselves on the fruits of the nation's incredible agricultural bounty – legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow hosted one of the most acclaimed documentaries in the history of television. The program was entitled "Harvest of Shame" and it explored the largely hidden scandal of American agriculture: the treatment of the nation's farmworkers.

Here's Murrow opening statement from that program as the camera panned a group or workers being recruited for "picking" work:

"This scene is not taking place in the Congo. It has nothing to do with Johannesburg or Cape Town. It is not Nyasaland or Nigeria. This is Florida. These are citizens of the United States, 1960. This is a shape-up for migrant workers. The hawkers are chanting the going piece rate at the various fields. 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.'"

The program went on to document the abysmal conditions in which vast numbers of farmworkers subsisted. At the time, it was thought by many that the program would have a galvanizing effect on the nation – that most Americans would be shocked by what they saw and demand policy changes that would, at least over time, put an end to the scandal. Sadly, despite the passage of nearly a half-century, much remains the same.

Murrow's closing statement of the documentary seemed to presage the lack of action that has followed:

"The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do. Good night, and good luck."

The scandal continues

Over the last half-century, progress for farmworkers has been spotty, at best. Most still struggle for meager wages and subsist in living conditions that would appall average, middle class Americans. A 2008 congressional hearing explored the ongoing existence of virtual slavery in the tomato fields of south Florida. Child labor remains a huge problem.

What little progress that has occurred is mostly attributable to the tireless work of unions/advocacy groups like the United Farm Workers and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the complementary efforts of a scattered collection of legal aid lawyers, faith groups and other activists. These groups and individuals struggle to keep the spirit of "Harvest of Shame" alive in an era in which economic uncertainty and soaring income inequality have combined to leave most Americans in an uncharitable state of mind.

Add to this reality the fact that American agribusiness remains enormously powerful, well-connected and one of the most uncompromising and reactionary political forces in the nation and it's a wonder that farmworker advocates haven't found themselves having to defend against efforts to repeal the 13th Amendment.

The "guestworker" program

Of all the policy debates related to America's treatment of farmworkers (pay, pesticides, toilets, the "short-handled hoe," housing, healthcare, education) none has drawn more attention in recent decades than that of foreign workers. In general, agribusiness interests consistently seek to assure that the barriers to hiring foreign workers (often referred to as "guestworkers") will be as low as possible.

This makes obvious economic sense for growers. Foreign workers are willing to work for a pittance and constitute an easily controllable workforce. Complaints about pay or working conditions are usually few and far between when workers know they can be fired and deported at the drop of a hat.

Farmworker advocates, in contrast, argue that there would be much less need for importing foreign workers in the first place if agribusiness were simply required to provide American workers with decent pay and treatment for such grueling and dangerous work.     

The battle over this issue is often joined in the debate over rules concerning what is known as the "H-2A visa" program. As a general matter, Congress has required the U.S. Department of Labor to certify that there are not enough domestic workers to do the available work – even at a pay rate slightly above minimum wage (a rate known as the "adverse effect wage rate") – before agribusiness will get the okay to ship in H-2A workers from Mexico or other countries. Not surprisingly, agribusiness has fought hard to keep the wage rate very low.

In recent years, the bar has moved back and forth a few times. During the waning days of the Bush administration, the Department of Labor did its best to slash the requirements on agricultural employers. As a practical matter, these changes lowered the wages for U.S. workers (and, thereby, foreign H-2A workers) substantially – by as much as $2 per hour. The New York Times called this action "a cheap shot at workers."

Earlier this year, the Obama Department of Labor began to take action to reverse the Bush administration's wage-slashing rule changes and to return standards to where they had been for years before – a level that was still absurdly inadequate, but that at least raised the standard of living of both foreign and domestic workers.

N.C. congressional delegation: doing the bidding of agribusiness

Earlier this week, in a discouraging bow of subservience to the agribusiness lobby, almost the entire North Carolina congressional delegation (progressives and conservatives alike – with the sole exception of Congressman David Price) penned a letter to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis questioning her efforts to restore worker standards to where they had been prior to the Bush administration's big cuts. (North Carolina imports more H-2A workers than any other state in the country).

Congressman Bob Etheridge, an apparent leader of the effort, even claimed that the Department of Labor standards would result in higher grocery bills for consumers and somehow harm workers!

As the Department's detailed and lengthy explanation of its proposed changes makes clear, however, such arguments are make no sense at all. First of all, wages for workers have fallen dramatically under the Bush administration rules and are currently almost 19% below where they will be under the new rules (and would have been had the Bush rules never been adopted – see page 45927).  When this fact is combined with all of the other worker burdens that the new rules would repeal (the Bush rules, for instance, made guestworkers pay more of their own travel expenses) it becomes clear that the delegation is either disingenuous in its professed concern for workers or badly misinformed. 

As for the claims about grocery bills rising under the return to the old regimen, this might be marginally persuasive if there were any evidence that agribusiness passed on the Bush-imposed wage cuts to consumers in the form of lower grocery bills. Anyone noticed their grocery bills going down lately? Even if this were true, though, is that what Americans really want – to force our most vulnerable workers to accept below-poverty-level wages so that we can save a few cents at the check-out line?

Going forward

In 2008, the experts at a national advocacy group known as Farmworker Justice published a report entitled "Litany of Abuses: More – not fewer – labor protections needed in the H-2A guestworker program."  It ought to be required reading for all members of the North Carolina congressional delegation and their staffs (except perhaps for David Price).

And after that, perhaps they could check out an old copy of "Harvest of Shame." Better late than never.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.