Time to remember farmworkers

As Americans gather in Norman Rockwell-like scenes this Thanksgiving to enjoy the bounty of the season, few will acknowledge the contributions of the farmworkers who harvested the fruits and vegetables on their tables. These workers’ efforts are far from public visibility. The work is devastatingly hard. Their homes and equipment are inadequate. Their children are exploited. Their access to decent schools and hospitals is limited. Their meager pay is not commensurate to their work. 

Though considered part of the country’s vexing immigration problem, farmworkers perform a critical role in the U.S. work force. There are about 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States, a slight decline from recent years, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. About 8 million of them are in the work force, 5.2 percent of the labor force. We see some of them holding blowing machines on city streets, painting homes and doing the dirty work in restaurant kitchens. But there is an invisible part of this work force, mostly but not all Mexicans, working in the fields and orchards of America — between one and three million migrant farmworkers, according to Eduardo González, Jr. of the Cornell University Cooperative Extension — doing the grueling hand labor that is required to fill our tables with the unmatched bounty of the earth in this country. (Migrant workers are those who travel from place to place to harvest the crops; seasonal agricultural workers live in the same place year-round.) More than half of all farmworkers, 53 of every 100, are unauthorized and have no legal immigration status. They are here as a result of an economic push-pull of poverty in their home countries and the need for their labor here.

More than 61 percent of migrant and seasonal farmworkers earn wages below the poverty level, receive no work benefits and suffer awful work conditions — substandard housing, exposure to pesticides, inferior education for their children and healthcare for their families, and abuse by their masters. American workers don’t want these jobs, so they go to those for whom even these circumstances are attractive compared to their opportunities in their home countries. 

Much of farmworkers’ problems could be alleviated with the enforcement of existing laws, and the agencies having jurisdiction know it — the Training and Employment Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor and the Environmental Protection Agency. For example, the certification process under which seasonal agricultural workers are regularly brought into the U.S. to work has been a charade. We are importing temporary workers, which is equivalent to exporting U.S. jobs. If work conditions were improved and wages increased, domestic workers in the U.S. would fill these jobs. 

Farmworkers are not the laborers who were uncharitably mislabeled by politicians as needy takers. They are the 21st century Hispanic newcomers who are comparable to early 20th century European immigrants who are now the middle class in America by virtue of their contributions to this country. They are good candidates for the path to citizenship.

“While enforcement of existing labor, housing and other protections in law are extraordinarily important for farmworkers and their families, meaningful immigration reform that will enable workers and family members to gain legal immigration status, is critical to farmworkers and, to the health of the agricultural industry as a whole,” says Roger Rosenthal, executive director of the Migrant Legal Action Program. “Gaining legal status will bring these workers out from the shadows, maximize their contribution to the nation’s economy through their labor, and increase tax revenue which benefits all Americans.” 

The sad truth about farmworkers is that we have known about their plight for a century; it has been dramatically documented by media greats such as John Steinbeck and Edward R. Murrow, and revealed in network television and local journalism. But conditions do not change. Exposés generate attention. Congress passed laws to improve work conditions, assuming realities would change. Executive Department officials (mostly from the Department of Labor) are paid to enforce those laws, but don’t. Farmworkers have no political power, except through their unions; even César Chávez’s extraordinary efforts and (inadequate) help from churches did not lead to the needed systemic changes required for the lives of these workers to change. Farmworkers need their champions in the Congress and the new administration.

The opportunity to deal humanely with these problems in the inevitable immigration reform next year could be a last chance. As American families pause to give thanks for our unique lives in this wonderful country, we should remember these workers and support their efforts to live good American lives.

Goldfarb is a Washington, D.C.- and Miami-based attorney and author. His Ford Foundation sponsored book, Migrant Farm Workers: A Caste of Despair, grew out of his appointment by a federal court in Washington, D.C., to oversee court mandated reforms regarding migrant and seasonal workers.