Harvesting Dignity: Remembering the Lives of Farmworkers

By: María J. Obando

As we receive and share the gift of food with others this holiday season, let us remember the people who put food on our tables. 

With the holiday season underway, it is easy to get “wrapped up” in gifts. We give presents to friends and loved ones, some of us spending hours online or at the mall carefully choosing that perfect something for someone. Ironically, we spend almost no time unwrapping the presents we receive. In a similar fashion, many labor tirelessly for hours to prepare incredible meals for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and other holiday gatherings. In the end, the meals quickly disappear from plates, leaving stomachs full and satisfied. The gift of food is rarely ever wrapped in pretty paper and bows, but it is nonetheless wrapped in bags and put in cardboard boxes. The gift of food is not only carefully prepared for cooking; it is first carefully prepared for market or storage. The gift of food is handpicked in the harvest, cultivated, and, first and foremost, planted. Most importantly, the gift of food comes from those who are a big part of our lives, but who unfortunately remain anonymous and forgotten, if they are ever remembered at all.

One day after Thanksgiving in 1960, Edward R. Murrow, a prominent American journalist, presented Harvest of Shame on CBS prime time. The documentary treated the plight of a “forgotten people”: migrant farmworkers. Harvest of Shame revealed migrant workers’ terrible living and working conditions, including the health, social and labor injustices plaguing the United States’ agricultural system. It spawned a lot of public attention, which ultimately resulted in some changes to farmworker regulation rights and policies. Over fifty years later, Harvest of Dignity, a documentary made possible by Minnow Media in partnership with Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), demonstrates that little has actually changed; migrant farmworkers are facing many of the same conditions today as those documented in 1960.[i]  As signified by the re-appropriated and revised title, where there was shame, now there is dignity, but not because there is anything dignified about working conditions of agricultural labor. Rather, it is a harvest of dignity because migrant farmworkers unflaggingly labor to bestow upon us the gift of food, even in spite of their day-to-day plight. The mission of both of these documentaries is to make farmworkers more visible to the general public. Sadly, these individuals still remain relatively invisible, especially in the state of North Carolina.

Farmworkers in North Carolina

While Harvest of Shame’s showcase of migrant farmworkers was national in scope, it did feature North Carolina, possibly because it was Murrow’s home state. Similarly, North Carolina becomes the centerpiece of Harvest of Dignity. Commissioned by SAF (Student Action for Farmworkers), the recent documentary includes interviews with local advocates and farmworkers in North Carolina. With 22% of the state’s income deriving from farm labor, agriculture makes a significant contribution to the economy (about $10 billion a year). Unfortunately, workers in the state earn 35% less than the national average, a disparity that may be due to the migrant farmworker demographic. The North Carolina agricultural workforce is now largely comprised of Latinos (95-98%) from Mexico and Central America, in contrast to 50 years ago when African Americans were the predominant group. While some hold an H-2A classification work permit, many are not legally authorized to work.[ii] As the Southern Poverty Law Center points out, “undocumented immigrants exist in a shadow economy,”[iii] as they are subject to harsh living and working conditions and rarely speak up out of fear of possible deportation. Even those who do have legal working permits rarely speak up because they are dependent on their employer for their visa. Violations of human and worker’s rights include lack of provision of proper safety equipment, sub-standard housing, unfair compensation, and even sexual abuse, but these experiences largely remain in the shadows.

Farm labor is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country, with the fatality rate for workers seven times higher than for workers in private industries, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Farm labor is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country, with the fatality rate for workers seven times higher than for workers in private industries, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The quality of life for farmworkers diminishes in the midst of adverse weather conditions, pesticides, dust, fungi, etc. The fact that many North Carolina crops like sweet potatoes, apples, bell peppers, cucumbers, and other fruits and vegetables require hand labor means that workers have greater risk of exposure. With the holiday season in full swing, Christmas trees can be added to the list. Wilmer, a farmworker in the state interviewed Harvest of Dignity, has planted, fertilized, cultivated, sprayed and picked—all at the cost of immigrants’ health. “I think the chemicals have harmed me some,” says Wilmer, “but my brothers, I have brought them to the emergency room because of the tobacco, because of the chemicals they use.” Wilmer’s brothers may very well have experienced green tobacco poisoning, or nicotine poisoning, through the skin. Elaine Bartlett, from the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, reports that 24% of workers in tobacco fields are poisoned at least once in the growing season and that they can absorb the same amount of nicotine in 36 cigarettes daily.[iv]  There continues to be a great need for education for farmworkers insofar as the prevention and/or treatment of the health hazards in agricultural work. What complicates matters even further is the lack of medical treatment; in North Carolina, only 20% of farmworkers receive health care. It is no surprise, then, that the fatality rate for farmworkers in the state is higher than the national average.

“Asleep on the hay”: Farmworkers deserve better living conditions

 In Harvest of Shame, Murrow notes the extent of “bad” housing: “Flies, mosquitoes, dirty beds and mattresses, unsanitary toilets, and lack of hot water for bathing.” Before 2007, housing laws in North Carolina did not even require farmers to provide workers beds with mattresses. Accordingly, huge amendments were passed to the Migrant Housing Act in 2007 with the successful campaign efforts of the NC Farmworker Advocacy Network that started in 2003. While the North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL) sets standards for migrant housing, the state still suffers from inadequate housing, which creates additional health and safety risks for farmworkers who already face hazardous working conditions. A recent study by the Center for Worker Health at Wake Forest University School of Medicine reveals that the “bad” housing Murrow characterizes troubles today’s North Carolina migrant workers; the study is ostensibly the most extensive investigation in the Southeastern U.S. pertaining to farmworker housing.[v] Of the 183 camps inspected, there were multiple violations of the North Carolina Migrant Housing Act found in each camp, which included roach, mice and rat infestation; non-working toilets and showers; contaminating drinking water; and problems related to fire safety[vi].

Child labor: farmwork robs children of their youth

In North Carolina, nearly 5 out of 10 farmworkers disclosed that they could not afford the cost of food for their families, sometimes themselves. Unfortunately, financial desperation leads children to work alongside their parents in the fields. In 2010, Human Rights Watch, an international organization focused on human rights, conducted research in a handful of states, including North Carolina, to evaluate farmworking conditions for children.[vii] Based on more than 140 interviews with current and former child farmworkers, the study revealed that working conditions have serious consequences for children in regards to health and education. Like adult farmworkers, children, face extreme temperatures and pesticide exposure, the latter of which is very problematic because their bodies are still in development. Further, many children work with sharp tools and heavy machinery without sufficient safety measures. Research also disclosed that employers do not protect children by giving them basic health needs on the job: “Many children said that their employers did not provide drinking water, handwashing facilities or toilets” (Human Rights Watch). Shockingly, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not protect children in agricultural occupations the way it does children working in other industries,[viii] and even the feeble protection it does provide rarely receives enforcement. Because the FLSA also does not cap how many hours children can work outside of school hours, child agricultural workers often struggle with their education. They have difficulties concentrating on both school and work, and thus education becomes secondary to meeting financial needs for themselves or their families. It is no surprise that farmworker youth often drop out of school and fail to continue their education. Sadly, this hazardous line of work forces children to grow up too quickly and jeopardizes future educational opportunities.

The Gift of Dignity: Effecting change for farmworkers

Hazardous working conditions, putrid housing, and child labor—these are all injustices that the people who work for our food face on a daily basis. Far more research has been conducted in regards to migrant farmworkers and the problems of the agricultural system in the United States that could not be related in this blog. There are a vast number of minor troublesome issues that create larger problems. Agriculture, however, largely suffers from a structural problem that cannot and will not be fixed in the short term. Indeed, Harvest of Shame brought national awareness for the plight of migrant farmworkers and facilitated advocacy, but over fifty years have passed and not enough has been done to ensure human rights and protection for them.

“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.” Speaking directly to the American nation, these were Edward Murrow’s closing words for the documentary in 1960. Murrow clearly points to the need and power of “enlightened,” “aroused,” and “angered,” voices to effect change on behalf of migrant farmworkers. Migrant farmworkers are the often-silenced voices we do not hear and the marginalized individuals we do not see. They are mistreated, exploited, injured, and unrecognized. It is vital that we promulgate the respect and acknowledgement migrant farmworkers deserve by making them visible through awareness efforts, educational means, and advocacy work.

As we receive and share the gift of food with others this holiday season, let us remember the people who put food on our tables.


About the author:

María J. Obando is an intern with the Latino Migration Project. She is a graduate student in English and Comparative Literature at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is interested in 20th century multi-ethnic literature, particularly how Latinos are represented in drama. Her focus on dramatic texts includes their historical, cultural and literary contexts as well as their performative aspects.

[i] Both documentaries and other short videos are available on the North Carolina Farmer Advocacy Network’s site, http://www.ncfan.org/videos/.

[ii] The federal H-2A agricultural guest worker program provides farmers with a legal workforce in the absence of domestic labor. The state of North Carolina has more H-2A guest workers than any other state, with a certified 9,387 guest workers. In 2011, Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of migrant and seasonal farmworkers, released a report that exposed the ways in which the program is fraught with violations and worker abuse, leaving thousands of migrant farmworkers without adequate protection. The report strongly recommends legal enforcement and details short-term as well as long-term solutions. The report is available at http://farmworkerjustice.org/sites/default/files/documents/7.2.a.6%20No%20Way%20To%20Treat%20A%20Guest%20H-2A%20Report.pdf.

[iii] The Southern Poverty Law Center’s full article, “Under Seige: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South” can be read in its entirety at http://cdna.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/downloads/UnderSiege.pdf.

[iv] Bartlett’s “The Dangers of Agricultural Work” is part of the NC Farmworker Advocacy Network’s blog, available at http://www.ncfan.org/blog/tag/labor-camps#.UL-ih6V9LqE.

[v] “Migrant farmworker housing regulation violations in north Carolina” was published by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in March of 2012.

[vi] A migrant farm camp can be an old farm house, a trailer, or a trailer park. Camps remain invisible due their isolated geographical location.

[vii] The report, “Fields of Peril: Child Labor in U.S. Agriculture” can be accessed at http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/crd0510_brochure_low_0.pdf.

[viii] The FLSA, which regulates child labor, upholds a no-minimum-working-age for children on small farms, outside of school hours, as long as there is parental permission. Also with parental permission, children who are 12-13 years of age can work for any size farm outside of school hours. Once children are 14-15 years of age, they can work on any farm without parent permission. In contrast, children under 14 years of age cannot be legally employed in nonagricultural industries; those who are 14-15 years old can only work for limited hours outside of school and in designated jobs by the secretary of labor (i.e. grocery stores). Children who are 12 years old (in some cases as young as 10 years old) are allowed to work under the North Carolina child labor laws, although children as young as six have been found working in the fields.



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