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Our Addiction to Cheap Farm Labor

Raleigh News & Observer
By Chris Liu-Beers, NC Council Of Churches

Immigrant farmworkers picking sweet potato

As we enter this holiday season of feasting, we need to be honest about how our food is produced. America has always relied on cheap labor to make agriculture work.

The source of much of that labor used to be slave ships making the Middle Passage. Today it’s no longer slaves but immigrant workers, primarily undocumented people from Mexico and Latin America, whose cheap labor makes possible both low prices at the grocery store and high profits for agribusinesses.

Farmworkers don’t often make the news. Even though 85% of fruits and vegetables are still harvested by hand, farmworkers and their families remain largely invisible to our society. We don’t like to think too much about who is doing the dirty work.

But recently farmers and farmworkers in Georgia and Alabama have made national headlines as labor shortages have forced us to pay attention. Crops are rotting on the vine and growers are staring at huge losses, unsure of how to move forward without a reliable pool of cheap labor.

Why Georgia and Alabama? Both states recently passed harsh new immigration laws designed to crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Proponents said the new laws would open up thousands of jobs for legal residents, especially on farms.

But with average annual salaries of $11,000, 14-hour days in the heat of summer, and shockingly unsafe working conditions, do you think U.S. citizens are rushing to fill these jobs?

The new hit NBC show Rock Center recently highlighted the labor shortage on Alabama’s farms:

We met Jess Montez Durr, who was picking tomatoes on the Jenkins tomato farm on Chandler Mountain in northern Alabama. Durr said he’d stick with this as long as he could, but he preferred his previous job as a dishwasher at Applebee’s. “The work was a whole lot more easier than this,” he said. Since our visit, he and the other American workers have quit.

Consumers, growers, politicians, we’re all caught up in this bind. We want cheap labor and cheap food, but it turns out we don’t really want the people who make it all possible – and all the “inconveniences” of educating children or protecting workers. On our farms we’ve always relied on marginalized and vulnerable workers to do backbreaking manual labor, and now we’re pretending that they are the problem. With these new state laws we’re criminalizing them, telling them that their help is no longer wanted. So they’re leaving.

In Georgia, Gov. Deal suggested that ex-cons should do the work. But it turns out even this population can turn down jobs that are “unsuitable,” and most have. It seems that the few who tried often didn’t last a day in the fields.

So how do we move forward? The solution is not to find yet another vulnerable population to exploit in the fields. Instead, we need to end our addiction to cheap labor.

To start, farmworkers should have the same protections and safety standards as other industries. Despite the passage of the 1935 Fair Labor Standards Act, farmworkers – many of whom were African-American sharecroppers at the time – were excluded from many of its provisions. Decades later, farmworkers are still fighting for the most basic protections that other workers have, like overtime and child labor laws.

Farmworkers should have legal status, too. We all benefit when workers are on a level playing field. Honest employers who obey the laws would no longer be at a competitive disadvantage against unscrupulous employers who take advantage of undocumented workers. At the same time, workers would be able to leave bad jobs and complain about unsafe conditions without fear of being deported.

Finally, farmworkers should earn more than poverty wages. A study of migrant workers in Eastern NC found that nearly half don’t have enough food to feed their families year-round. But if farm wages were to rise by 40 percent, each seasonal farmworker would be lifted above the federal poverty line. The total cost to consumers? About $15 more per household per year. (Check out “Room for Debate” at the NY Times for more on this.)

In a down economy with high unemployment, it’s no surprise when politicians heap blame on the most vulnerable populations, like undocumented farmworkers. But the hard truth these politicians won’t admit is that farmworkers didn’t steal our jobs. We invited them. We needed their cheap, reliable labor and we were content when times were good and workers didn’t complain.

Now that we’re criminalizing undocumented workers in unprecedented ways, we’re merely reaping what we sowed. We have no one to blame but ourselves.

Click here to read this editorial at the Raleigh News & Observer.

Reader Comments (2)

I'm with People of Color Occupy Eugene from Oregon (POCOE) and just saw this day of international action coming up and thought I would give groups who might be interested a heads up.

Thank you

December 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCheryl RiversHailey

Farm laborer are very industrious and hard working, it is right to give them tribute through small ways and give them benefits which they need.

December 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterplumbing

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