H-2 Worker

film stillWhen Jon asked me to introduce the film I said I was more than glad to do it and I was glad to see that the labor community was showing this film. Having been involved with migrant farm workers for the past twenty some years, I think this film will offend your sense of decency and your sense of honesty and your sense and belief in justice and democracy and freedom, and I’ve got a whole lot of words I can use to talk about what we believe in and what we feel exists in our country. As you watch the film I think you’re going to be offended by its examples of racism in our society. It’s really evident when you look at the H-2A workers and they’re all black, and you look at the members of the Department of Labor and you look at the growers and you look at the festival in celebration of a great harvest that’s attended by all white people as the black Jamaican workers get on a plane furnished by the company and go back to Jamaica.

What the film does not tell you though, and one of the only real criticisms I have of the film, is why H-2A workers are brought into this country: what’s the purpose of H-2A workers? Because it says they’re under contract and all of us who work where there is a contract realize that workers have certain protections under contract. But when H-2A [workers] come under contract with the Jamaican government and with the United States, supported by the Department of Labor, they are under contract to a specific grower or to a specific food processor and if they complain about wages or working conditions or they do not receive what they were promised and they complain or go on a work stoppage, they are immediately fired and deported back to Jamaica. And if they don’t like where they’re working and if they don’t like the working conditions they can’t leave and go to another farm. They’re restricted to that one contractor, that one grower, that one farmer. And I think, if you look at it that way, it brings you back to what slavery was: it’s a captured work force with very limited rights.

Now why do they want H-2A workers? In the film they say that there aren’t domestic workers or that American workers will not do the work of cutting sugar cane. In reality the reason why they want these workers is because they are a captured work force, they don’t have to worry about a workforce that will complain or leave during the season or stop work. The film clearly portrays how workers will work for two weeks and receive a check for less than $100 after all the deductions are taken out. (And a thing that I didn’t know is that 25% of H-2A workers’ earned pay is deducted and put into a savings account at no interest but then is used by the Jamaican government for investment, and the workers are not allowed to withdraw that money all at once — they can withdraw it piecemeal).

Now the H-2A program and the H-2 film talk about Florida and Jamaica, but most people don’t realize that there are hundreds and even thousands of Jamaican workers in New York State. In the mid-Hudson most, or a good percentage, of the apple pickers are Jamaican workers. In the upstate region there are few H-2A workers. In 1988 two large growers in western New York tried to import Chinese and North Korean workers into the United States in the H-2A program, and our office was able to prevent that from happening by informing domestic workers that there were jobs available, and under the H-2A if domestic workers come to the grower they have to hire them for the first half of the contract. More and more upstate growers are trying to recruit H-2A workers under the program and we hear the same argument that there is not a supply of dependable labor, of people who are capable of doing the work. And yet we know that there are thousands of domestic workers who are looking for work and in fact, because of the downturn in the economy, you’re finding more and more workers in urban areas looking for work and they go out to the farms and they go to the Department of Labor.

In the film an H-2A worker talks about being in a camp which was surrounded by a fence and patrolled by shot gun-carrying guards. The film also talks about situations of peonage or forced slavery or bondage, where workers are not allowed to leave the camp and in some cases the workers were chained to their beds so they would not leave at night. In New York State, not too far from here, in a camp called King Ferry — a camp of about 150 workers — was enclosed by fence with armed guards that walked around the camp at night. And when a group of workers left the camp and got on a Greyhound bus, the bus was stopped by the crew leader, got on board the Greyhound bus carrying shot guns and forced the workers off the bus. King Ferry is about 80 miles from here and that happened in 1968 or 1969.

We have had in upstate New York a number of situations in which workers have been retained, forcibly retained in the camp, because they owed the crew leader money. Now a crew leader is employed by the grower to recruit farm workers from the South or from Puerto Rico or from the Southwest. In New York State there are approximately 60,000 migrant farm workers: they come from Texas and Florida, from North Carolina, from Georgia; they come from Mexico, from Haiti, from Central America; they come from Puerto Rico. In the last four or five years, there’s been an influx of workers from Central America, escaping that region’s poverty and war zones.

In upstate New York, in this region, there are about 20,000 migrant farm workers. (I say ‘about’ because no one knows — there’s no count. It depends who you talk to). Within ten miles of where we’re sitting tonight there are some of the worst labor camps in New York State or in the United States. When you look at the film and you see the conditions that workers are working under, when you listen to them talk about their pay scale or their wages or their working conditions, when you look at the housing they’re living in, don’t think just of Florida, don’t think just of H-2A. But think of the farm workers that are ten miles from here, fifteen miles from here, twenty miles from here in Monroe County — many under the same conditions. It’s sometimes hard for people in this area to realize that those same conditions exist here.

Let me give you a brief overview of the conditions of farm workers in general in upstate New York. The average life expectancy for a farm worker is 48 years. (For white males it’s 72, for females it’s 78). The average family income is less than $5,000 and the average family income is composed of everybody in the family working. It may be the children — in a number of cases it will be children eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve years old — who are also working. What happens in many cases is that the head of the household will get one check and all the other members will contribute to the picking of the crops.

Farm workers have less than an eighth grade education. Migrants live in housing that would be classified as substandard in any city, town or village. One of the doctors who works with us and has been in Central America says that the housing in migrant labor camps is as bad if not worse than the housing he has seen in third world countries. In the movie it shows these long barracks, crammed with a hundred workers. Camps in upstate also have barracks: a room like this would be thirty, forty, fifty workers on bunks piled on top of each other. Many of the other camps have very small rooms for three or four people. They will have maybe three or four showers for fifty people — men and women. And they will have privies — outdoor toilets; these privies have no heat, usually don’t have any windows. The camps often time have no hot water. You’re talking about people living in these conditions in October, November and as late as December.

The health conditions, the rate of birth defects, infant mortality, birth weight of babies, and the availability of health services rank as low as any developing country. Compounding the problem is that migrant workers and their families are routinely exposed to pesticides. (I have a theory that if they were white workers working in the fields they would not be subject to what could be classified as genocide). Workers are routinely exposed to fifty different chemicals a year, as often as seven to ten times — without training, without warning. They can be sprayed in the field if there’s drifting. Moreover, their living quarters are also located in the field. And so when spraying occurs in the field the children and members of the whole family get sprayed and the drinking water gets sprayed. Migrant farm workers and their children have the highest rate of cancer of any group of workers in our country. They have the highest rate of tumors and liver cancer. A migrant woman, by the time she’s twenty-four or twenty-five, can have as many as five to eight miscarriages. They have the highest rate of birth defects. They have the highest rate of retardation. And many of them, because they don’t know what to do with their children as far as daycare, will take their children into the field if they’re nursing and so they’ll be nursing in the field and they’re exposed to these chemicals.

Migrant workers work an average of eight to ten hours a day, five and a half to six days a week, and if they’re lucky they will make one hundred dollars a week or less. There are many workers who, at the end of the season, still remain in debt to the crew boss or the crew leader. They’ve worked all summer and they have nothing to show for it. And under New York State law, [farm] workers are not protected as far as collective bargaining: they’re the only group of workers excluded in New York State. When minimum wage laws are passed, farm workers are always six or eight months behind the minimum wage. That’s because of the very powerful lobbying of the Farm Bureau.

So as you watch the film I think you have to keep in mind that the same conditions exist for our fellow brothers and sisters, our fellow workers in New York State. The fact is that the population we’re talking about is oppressed minorities, and it’s because of racism that these conditions are allowed.

After the film I’ll be glad to answer questions… If you want to know more about farm workers or if you’d like someone to speak to your labor union or your church group — please contact our office. Over the years it gets harder and harder to become involved in activities outside the United States, when daily we see the kind of exploitation that goes on very close to us. The conditions that exist here with the farm workers are no different than the conditions of the third world, with the police brutality, the harassment and the denial of basic services for farm workers. I’d like to say “Enjoy the film.” I don’t know if anyone will enjoy the film, but it’s really educational. And as you watch it, think of workers only ten miles from here under many of the same conditions.

This introduction was presented by Jim Schmidt at a screening of H-2 Worker on 13 March 1991.

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About Jim Schmidt

Jim Schmidt (1939-2012) served twenty-five years as Director of Farm Worker's Legal Services of New York, organizing a 180 mile march from Seneca Falls to Albany in April, 2003, to demand economic and social justice for farm workers. Awarded the Rochester Labor Council's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, Jim helped form the Band of Rebels to protest corporate greed and he actively participated in its demonstrations.