| I wish I videotaped the conversation I had two nights ago. And it wasn't so much a conversation as him talking and me listening on the edge of my seat for what felt like a very long time. English is his second language so he spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully. But I learned quickly that if I gave him time and didn't interrupt, he would find the perfect way to express himself, even if his words weren't as succinct as those of a native English speaker.
He grew up in Mexico, growing corn, peppers, onions, and other crops on his family's land. But after NAFTA passed, the corn in the grocery store became cheap. So cheap that it was cheaper than the corn his family produced. He couldn't sell his corn anymore, unless he sold it at a loss. Without a way to support his family, he had to come to America to work.
Others, he said, went to the cities in Mexico to work. But there, in the factories and sweatshops (often owned by foreign corporations), they still couldn't make enough to support their families. So they came to the United States too. None of them wanted to. They didn't want to leave their families, their friends, their culture, their way of life, and everything they knew. They had no choice.
|Now, he lives in Immokalee, FL along with countless other farmworkers. Some are undocumented but many are here legally. This can happen to anyone, he said. Even slavery can happen to anyone - not just undocumented workers. In Immokalee, there have been several cases of modern day slavery in which farmworkers were threatened at gunpoint and held in captivity, forced to work in the fields. But even those who aren't slaves live in harsh conditions in Immokalee.
The workers all live within a 9 square block radius, surrounding a parking lot where they look for work before dawn each day. They live close to the parking lot because they can't afford any form of transportation besides walking or perhaps a bike. And because all of the workers need to live within these 9 square blocks, housing prices are high even though the housing conditions are horrific. One worker will share a rundown trailer with 7 to 14 others.
I've heard their description of their daily lives before, so he didn't repeat it. They wake up at 4am to go to the parking lot, where buses arrive representing each of the farms that employ farmworkers. The farmers aren't given regular jobs, so they don't know if they will have work ever day. The reason why they don't have regular jobs, he thinks, is so the employers can make the workers compete in a race to the bottom. The worker who is willing to work in the most degrading conditions for the least pay will be selected to work.
The buses choose their workers for the day, and then drive up to 2 hours away to the fields. There, the workers wait for the dew to dry (although they are not paid for their time as they do this) and then get to work picking tomatoes. They are paid according to the number of 35 lb buckets they fill with tomatoes. A worker must pick 2 tons of tomatoes to make $50 in a day. Real wages for this work have not risen in years. However, the number of employers has gone down as the farms consolidated, and I believe he told me that the price the farmers are paid for the tomatoes (out of which they pay their workers) has gone down.
I asked if the workers work on crops other than tomatoes. Oh yes, he said. Onions, watermelons, lettuce, citrus, potatoes, all kinds of crops. "And are the workers exposed to pesticides?" I asked. "Do they get sick?" Oh yes, he said. But it doesn't do them any good to run a campaign against the pesticides. Even if the pesticides were gone, the overall system of exploitation would still be in place.
At the end of the day, the workers have spent 14 hours working for little money and only to go home (lousy and crowded though their housing may be) and prepare to do it all again. On holidays, he told me, everyone leaves Immokalee to visit family but the farmworkers stay. He said it's as if everyone understands that the farmworkers don't have a right to go be with their families for holidays. And yet the abundance on everyone's family table at Thanksgiving is due to the work of the farmworkers. How ironic is it that the very people who produce our food can't afford food themselves?
On Thanksgiving, the farmworkers go to a nearby park and line up to receive turkeys donated by people from a nearby wealthy Florida city. The farmworkers are all joyous and grateful to receive their turkeys. This is a beautiful act of generosity, he said, but why don't the people who give the turkeys each year work so that we no longer need to line up for free turkeys? Why don't they change the system?
And so, on Thanksgiving, American families sit down to tables filled with foods grown and harvested by farmworkers, while the farmworkers themselves are grateful to have donated turkey as they dine alone, far from their families. He said that Americans have no idea that the food on their table is provided by exploited farmworkers, and yet, if they knew, it wasn't pity they would feel for the farmworkers but scorn. Instead of gratitude for providing cheap food for the nation, the farmworkers are told "Go back to Mexico" and they are called "cockroaches." Their very humanity is denied by those who benefit from their work. And he feels that the hatred of illegal immigrants is merely an excuse to justify hatred of them all, for very many of the farmworkers are here legally.
In the parking lot in Immokalee, where the farmworkers go each morning to seek work, he described a number of charitable organizations. As you turn around in the center of the parking lot you see a homeless shelter, a church that gives out free meals, the park where the workers line up for free turkeys, a place that gives away free clothes to the poor, and more. And yet, he says, he does not want to need these things. He works 14 hours a day every day he can get work. Why should he need each and every one of these charitable services (as he does)? He wants to pay for his housing and his food and he wants to support his family. But under the current system, even if he works 14 hours a day, he cannot.
After listening to all he had to say, I am sad, angry, and ashamed to live in a country and participate in a system where this happens. Even my food comes from Mexican farmworkers who had to leave their families. I've met them and I have worked in the fields alongside them. I choose to buy my food from a farmer who treats his workers fairly. And a few years ago, I asked to volunteer on the farm so I could see what farm work was like. The farmer respects his workers. I'm glad that he does, and I would not buy food from him if he did not. However, even his workers have families (and children) in Mexico and they were forced to leave their countries to make a living. I can't fix that just by changing where I buy my food. We need to change our trade policies so that Mexicans are not forced to leave their country just to survive. And we need to change our labor laws so that agricultural workers have the same protections that other workers have. We also need to enforce antitrust laws to inject fair competition into the market. Without those, we won't have true immigration reform.