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October 1995, Volume 1, Number 4

Media Covers Farmworkers

A New York writer spent several weeks in California strawberry
fields and concluded that cheap and flexible migrant workers are the
key to the success of the state's farmers.

In the November issue of Atlantic Magazine, an article on the
expansion of strawberry production in California, and the use of
sharecroppers to tend labor-intensive strawberries, puts the blame
for the exploitation of strawberry workers at the hands of operators
who loan money to sharecroppers, supply them with (leased) land,
plants, fertilizers etc, and then earn a commission selling their
berries. Many sharecroppers reportedly find that their debts mount
each year.

Desperate sharecroppers, in turn, take advantage of newly-arrived
immigrant farm workers, cheating them to avoid going deeper into
debt. Legal aid groups go after the worst of these sharecroppers, and
feel frustrated when, even after they win cases against them, the
sharecropper goes out of business instead of paying back wages and
fines. The solution, according to California Rural Legal Aid, is to
ban sharecropping, or at least make strawberry operators
automatically liable for the labor law and immigration violations
committed by sharecroppers.

The article ends with an argument that the binational farm labor
market is being dragged down toward Mexican levels, and that blind
faith in the market has led to bad conditions for farm workers.

On July 20, 1995, CBS Reports aired a one-hour documentary on the
conditions of farm workers. Legacy of Shame began with
black-and-white clips from Harvest of Shame, the 1960 classic TV
documentary aired on November 25, a day after Thanksgiving.

The film opens with assertions that many rural Mexican and Central
Americans have no choice but to migrate north, and that neither
border controls nor employer sanctions in the US can stop them. New
Mexico chili pepper growers assert that they do not provide housing
for farm workers because complex and, in some instances, unnecessary
regulations make farm worker housing too expensive. As a result, farm
workers sleep on the streets of El Paso, and are charged for rides to
work in vans because the insurance costs of farm worker buses are
very high.

The film tracks a farm labor contractor accused of debt peonage
from South Carolina to Florida. The farm labor contractor allegedly
helps illegal Central Americans, including children, to enter the US,
but then does not let them leave his camp until their debts have been
repaid.

In California, the story focuses on the dangers to farm workers
posed by pesticides. There is a great deal of uncertainty about the
safety of pesticides, but errors tend to leave farm workers open to
exposure, in part because the same county agriculture commissioners
who represent local farmers are the chief enforcers of state
pesticide laws.

The final segment focuses on an exemplary vegetable grower based
in Florida. This grower is exemplary in part because so many other
farm employers openly or covertly violate labor and immigration laws.

Legacy of Shame lays most of the blame for the plight of the farm
worker at the feet of farm labor contractors, and implies that if
more farmers were willing to follow the example of the Florida grower
and eliminate their use of farm labor contractors, farm labor
conditions would improve.

The film concludes that the current farm labor system is likely to
continue because "it works." Dan Rather reportedly spent ten years
lobbying to get "Legacy of Shame" produced and aired on CBS.



A New York writer spent several weeks in California strawberry
fields and concluded that cheap and flexible migrant workers are the
key to the success of the state's farmers.

In the November issue of Atlantic Magazine, an article on the
expansion of strawberry production in California, and the use of
sharecroppers to tend labor-intensive strawberries, puts the blame
for the exploitation of strawberry workers at the hands of operators
who loan money to sharecroppers, supply them with (leased) land,
plants, fertilizers etc, and then earn a commission selling their
berries. Many sharecroppers reportedly find that their debts mount
each year.

Desperate sharecroppers, in turn, take advantage of newly-arrived
immigrant farm workers, cheating them to avoid going deeper into
debt. Legal aid groups go after the worst of these sharecroppers, and
feel frustrated when, even after they win cases against them, the
sharecropper goes out of business instead of paying back wages and
fines. The solution, according to California Rural Legal Aid, is to
ban sharecropping, or at least make strawberry operators
automatically liable for the labor law and immigration violations
committed by sharecroppers.

The article ends with an argument that the binational farm labor
market is being dragged down toward Mexican levels, and that blind
faith in the market has led to bad conditions for farm workers.

On July 20, 1995, CBS Reports aired a one-hour documentary on the
conditions of farm workers. Legacy of Shame began with
black-and-white clips from Harvest of Shame, the 1960 classic TV
documentary aired on November 25, a day after Thanksgiving.

The film opens with assertions that many rural Mexican and Central
Americans have no choice but to migrate north, and that neither
border controls nor employer sanctions in the US can stop them. New
Mexico chili pepper growers assert that they do not provide housing
for farm workers because complex and, in some instances, unnecessary
regulations make farm worker housing too expensive. As a result, farm
workers sleep on the streets of El Paso, and are charged for rides to
work in vans because the insurance costs of farm worker buses are
very high.

The film tracks a farm labor contractor accused of debt peonage
from South Carolina to Florida. The farm labor contractor allegedly
helps illegal Central Americans, including children, to enter the US,
but then does not let them leave his camp until their debts have been
repaid.

In California, the story focuses on the dangers to farm workers
posed by pesticides. There is a great deal of uncertainty about the
safety of pesticides, but errors tend to leave farm workers open to
exposure, in part because the same county agriculture commissioners
who represent local farmers are the chief enforcers of state
pesticide laws.

The final segment focuses on an exemplary vegetable grower based
in Florida. This grower is exemplary in part because so many other
farm employers openly or covertly violate labor and immigration laws.

Legacy of Shame lays most of the blame for the plight of the farm
worker at the feet of farm labor contractors, and implies that if
more farmers were willing to follow the example of the Florida grower
and eliminate their use of farm labor contractors, farm labor
conditions would improve.

The film concludes that the current farm labor system is likely to
continue because "it works." Dan Rather reportedly spent ten years
lobbying to get "Legacy of Shame" produced and aired on CBS.


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