I used to eat apples for their sweetness.
Their flawless skin smooth in my smooth hands
Rolling them in my palm as I picked the perfect one from the pile
— Avoiding the bruised ones
for they were
is sustained through these glistening apples
I am able to feed into the Illusion
believe in the false bliss of food appearing in a store,
free of struggle,
I eat this food with blissful ignorance
a supporter of the hidden system.
However, convenience comes at a cost. The oppression of the migrant farmworker is one of the most wide spread, yet hidden issues present in the United States today. Walking into a grocery store you find pristine presentation. Food organized into neat aisles and fruit stacked in perfect pyramids give the illusion that this food did not require struggle or suffering, that it was obtained through ease. This corporate-created illusion causes many to forget that someone had to pick that fruit and work the field in order for this food to be made so conveniently available.
Only an hour away from Ithaca, in Lyons, NY, undocumented immigrants as young as 7 work the fields pruning apple trees and picking corn throughout the seasons. There, in our own backyard, they work from sunrise to sundown, rain or shine, sleet or snow and are payed less than four dollars an hour in many cases. Not only does this occur in New York, but throughout the entire country. Workers migrate, usually in six-week increments, following the seasons to earn enough of an income to sustain their own basic level of living as well as send money home to their families. Many people leave their home countries because the standard of living is unimaginable and jobs are few and far apart. For many undocumented workers, coming to America is opportunity, it is a chance to build a better life for their family. However, due to a capitalistic economy, immigrants coming to the U.S. are subjected to an industry that lacks basic rights and provides no economic stability for those that work with it.
The basis of capitalism is keeping a system in place that keeps a segment of society unable to grasp as something higher. It is a modernly implemented form of structural poverty. Kirby Edmonds, a fellow at the Dorothy Cotton Institute in Ithaca, NY addresses these structural forms within our government and society that keep specific groups cycling through the same patterns. He speaks of poverty “engines” that are fueled directly by the impoverished people themselves. These engines are designed to feed and cloth the people that exist within it, but provide no opportunity for advancement in society. Walls are created between the people that exist in this cycle and social advancement opportunities such as the right to living wages and participation in a community.
This observation can be directly applied to the oppression of the migrant farmworker. Migrant farmworkers have become victims to the systemic problem that is the U.S. agriculture system. The U.S. has created a commodity out of undocumented immigrants. In a 2007-2009 survey done by the National Center for Farmworker Health, 72% of all farmworkers are foreign born. Immigrants come to America searching for better opportunity, emigrating from Haiti, the Caribbean, much of Mexico, and South America. Many come to the U.S. to escape the bad conditions of their home country.
Illegally entering the U.S., they work dangerous, long hours, reap no benefits, receive meager pay and remain in this state until border patrol picks them up and deports them. This controls the commodity and sustains the cycle, allowing the U.S. to maintain the illusion that the country does not want undocumented immigrants. This intention is supported through America’s purposeful lack of the proper quantity of work visas to supply the amount of unskilled workers the U.S. physically needs to support their economic structure. More than 50% of farmworkers on U.S. farms are undocumented. Deporting all unauthorized immigrants would mean the physical decimation of American agriculture, according to Farmworker Justice’s report, No Way to Treat a Guest, a document exploring the problems with the Agricultural work visa program.
Because of the lack of protection and rights an undocumented worker currently has, it is economically viable and logical for farms to employ these workers. Farmworkers are payed well below the minimum wage, allowing the farmer to reap more profit through cheap labor. This underpaid labor in turn supports the agriculture system and allows the rest of the country to purchase goods at lower prices. However, this societally desired convenience of “affordability” results in the dehumanization and suffering of other people, the farmworkers, thus contributing to systematically keeping the lower class in the lower class. A worker is payed so little for their labor that the same food they help to put in stores is priced higher than what they receive as compensation for actually picking the food. A long time ago, our country implemented slavery, free labor, to fulfill the backbreaking work required to sustain the agriculture system. This economically implemented role must be sustained to support the continuance of the system itself. It is the lack of proper pay and denial of basic rights towards farmworkers that give support for likening this labor to a modern form of slavery, according to the Huffington Post.
Basic labor laws, including the right to clean drinking water and access to bathrooms, have been applied to every other job since the 1935 as part of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). However, due to racist-rooted exclusions of the time, these same rights did not apply to farm workers until the late 1980s.
As part of the New Deal, southerners were only willing to submit their votes for the NLRA as long as it did not threaten the Jim Crow Laws, according to Professor Juan F. Perea’s research. To include agriculture and domestic workers, a predominately black work force, in the bill would mean to threaten the political economy of the South. “The price of southern democratic support for New Deal reforms was the exclusion of blacks from federal benefits and protections,” Perea writes. Democrats made these “racially-relevant adjustments” to secure southern members in their party thus denying blacks the basic rights that were then allotted to all other forms of labor, according Ira Katznelson, a political scientist and historian. This accommodation to the racism of the age supported our economy’s reliance on cheap, dehumanizing labor and allowed slavery to remain as a legally acceptable form of labor. It is this compromise that directly has an effect on the U.S. economy’s reliance on low-wage labor today.
In 1983 the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA/AWPA) was passed to provide labor protections for farmworkers. This act included federally compliant health and safety housing accommodations, disclosure of terms and conditions of employment to each worker at the time of hire, safe transportation, and pay each worker wages due as well as provide an itemized statement of earnings and deductions. However, agriculture employers have lobbied over the years to weaken the MSPA through lowering the safety requirements for housing and transportation and claiming the bill “unfairly singles out agriculture” according to Farmworker Justice.
Even today, farms are not required to adhere to basic rights such as livable housing accommodations for their workers unless they are considered a camp. This requires 7 or more laborers to be working on their farm. Due to this, many farms will operate with 6 or less workers to not have to adhere to these laws, keeping the cost of labor as low as possible.
Agriculture is the fourth most dangerous job in the world just under logging, fishing, and aircraft pilots according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Determined by fatality rates, this statistic is slightly swayed as it does not account for massive amounts of undocumented workers that represent much of farm labor. In 2010 the Cornell Cooperative estimated there to be about 80,000 undocumented workers in NY State alone.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one farmworker dies on the job every day while hundreds more are injured. Currently, Migrant farm workers are denied health care despite the fact that they are susceptible to such an incredible amount of danger each day.
In the apple orchards, tree rot often occurs, however it is generally undetectable to the human eye as it happens internally in the tree. Because of this, workers will not know until they are standing on top of the tree and it snaps from underneath them.
Workers are also exposed to massive amounts of pesticides when in the fields. Crops are sprayed in quantities only tolerable for a male of 150 pounds or more. However, women and children work the fields equally as much as men and are being over-exposed to these harmful pesticides on a daily basis causing many health problems to arise from this exposure. Workers suffer major health deficits including lung problems and skin peeling off their arms.
The ladders used in the fields also prove to be hazardous to many workers including Tiodólfo, an undocumented migrant worker, who became victim to this within less than a year of arriving in Lyons, NY. While high up in an apple orchard, his ladder slipped out from underneath, causing him to fall off and break his back. He now remains in hiding, hindered by his disability and lacking health care, unsupported by the system that put him in this condition. Tiodólfo, like many workers who suffer from injury or illness due to the dangers of the job, lack the means to receive proper medical treatment due to the lack of regulations in Agriculture. It is this lack of regulation that feeds directly into the exploitation and oppression of these undocumented workers.
Also contributing to this injustice are the lack of child labor laws that exist in Agriculture. “It is the only industry where you can be 13 years old and work an infinite amount of hours— even during school” Renan Salgado, abolitionist and human trafficking specialist, says . Because of this, many immigrant children remain uneducated and thus kept in the cycle of poverty with no hope of advancement in society. The Dream Act is working to change this. Although there is a Federal level of the bill, New York currently has a draft circulating at the state level. This draft would allow children of undocumented immigrants to receive college funding from the state, which they are currently denied. Although the children would still need to be accepted on their own merit, this bill would give immigrant children the hope of actually being able to feasibly afford an education.
In 1978, the Fair Labor Standards Act was amended to include farmworkers in the minimum wage law. However, only large-farm farmworkers were amended in, according to Student Action with Farmworkers’ fact sheet. However, overtime pay is still non existent for farmworkers although they work, on average, 14 hours a day. Many farm workers are also taxed upon pay and, because of their undocumented status, they do not benefit from these taxes. It is through this taxation and the fact that these workers are undocumented, that the government is physically making money off of undocumented workers. Not only is the U.S. exploiting the workers labor, but it is being fed millions of free tax dollars each week. This money is unaccounted for and and it’s use is undefined as it is essentially nonexistent in the public eye.
This problem is extremely systemic, complicated, and deep rooted throughout the United States. The proposed solutions surrounding the treatment of farm laborers are as complex and varied as the issue itself. Radical revolutionaries have suggested an entire shutdown of the agriculture system itself where society would survive off of community sustainable practices such as gardens and food preservation and thus cause a collapse of the monopoly the U.S. has built. However, there are organizations that approach the issue in more minuscule and specific ways. Rural Migrant Ministry (RMM) is a New York based non-profit that works to empower the youth of undocumented immigrants to find their own voice through programs such as their Youth Artist Group and the Youth Economic Group. They also help to foster conversation among the community through programs such as Building Bridges – a ten week course that incites deep conversation, creates relationships, and builds bridges among workers and the community they live in. RMM is also working to help pass the Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act. An omnibus bill that would mean a structured 8 hour work day with right to overtime pay, an implementation of minimum wage toward child workers, right to disability benefits, and the right to unionize as well as many other points. This will be lobbied for on May 5th, otherwise coined as Albany Day, where workers and advocates alike will join together in hopes of gaining representation and support from congress.
The oppression of migrant farmworkers is a piece of the systemic problem of agriculture that America’s consumerism-based society unknowingly feeds into every day. The necessity for food supports the already existing economic structure and sustains the super market illusion. This automatically shadows any idea that another may be suffering for the benefit of the consumer’s convenience. However, once this issue is brought to light it is a hard to easily forget. America’s monopolization of the Agriculture system has created deep-rooted, ethically disturbing problems so complicated there cannot be a singular solution and these problems are not limited to American soil. The power of the Agribusiness is immense, equal to that of oil and energy, and it is the true evil when looking at this issue. Farmers themselves are almost as low on the chain as the workers when the systemic problem is viewed as a whole. The U.S. agriculture system is supported through governmental structures themselves. Having cheap food is what allows minimum wage to be so low, creating less economic deficit for the government itself. The systems directly feed each other. There are billions currently starving across the globe as American’s harbor an an abundant food supply made obvious through the excessiveness of the grocery store. These billions were sacrificed for the success of a single industry. The problem of hunger is not shortage, it’s equitable access. Most of the people who suffer from this take over lack a voice in mainstream society. The success of a society should not be achieved through the deprivation and oppression of another and as people become aware of this injustice, they can become the voice for those hidden by the agricultural system. In bringing light to the issue, the first steps towards change can be achieved.
Christina Lugo is a freshman documentary studies major who takes a people-first approach to grocery shopping. Email her at clugo2[at]ithaca.edu.