The Hands That Feed Us

BY GERARD DIPOPOLO — Miles north of one of the largest urban centers in the state of Florida you will find Immokalee. Immokalee is a largely agricultural unincorporated area that is one of the major centers of tomato growing in the United States. During the 60s, CBS visited Immokalee and was shocked to see the working conditions that the area’s farm workers were subjected to. Since then, the government has enacted legislation as a remedial measure; however, migrant farm workers continue to be one of the hardest worked and lowest paid groups of people in the country.

In 2008, documentarian Georg Koszulinski revisited Immokalee. The opening sequence of the film contains no dialogue, instead the on screen images are accompanied by only the ominous and seemingly sinister hum of machinery and the sound of infant tomato plants being plucked from their Styrofoam packaging and planted into the plastic-sheathed soil. The viewer is presented with what seems to be a highly impersonal machinated agricultural process, but the film does not really focus on this. Instead, it focuses on the stories of the individuals that comprise an unseen workforce. The individuals employed in farm work are forced to live on the fringes of society and must suffer a number of both social and economic disadvantages. These workers are migrant farm workers.

A migrant agricultural worker is defined by the The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (AWPA) as any person who engages in agricultural employment of a temporary nature such that he is “required to be absent overnight from his permanent place of residence.” Migrant workers continue to be one of the most impoverished and abused workers in the U.S. They are subjected to long hours of backbreaking labor, sub-standard working and living conditions, and a variety of other indignities. Unfortunately, they are compensated with meager wages and sometimes end up in debt to the company they for which they work

In Caro-Galvan v. Richardson, the court recognized the unfortunate position of migrant workers stating that “[t]he tragedy is further compounded when it is realized that the victims of this poverty are in fact the working poor, those who offer an honest day’s labor, but are denied the full benefits such work should provide, which are so desperately needed to provide the most basic necessities of life.” In an attempt to address the serious issues being presented by the agricultural industries employment of migrant workers Congress passed the AWPA in 1983. The AWPA requires employers to pay agreed upon wages, keep records of work provided, and record wages paid out. Additionally, the AWPA creates minimum standards that must be satisfied in regard to housing and transportation as well as a private right of action for violations of the act. Despite the AWPA, employers of migrant workers count on the workers lack of access to legal help as a means of circumventing the legislation. Migrant workers still continuously face employers who pay below minimum wage, who charge workers so much for housing that the workers end up in debt and who deduct Social Security payments but do not report them to the government.

Many migrant workers live on land owned or controlled by the company for whom they are employed. Many cases have come about that bring to light the conditions that these workers must suffer. In Avila v. A. Sam & Sons, Virtually every farm worker testified that they had slept on the employer’s premises either in a crew leader’s van or on the ground outside a packing house for at least one week. In Castillo v. Case Farms of Ohio, Inc., the court called the housing at issue, “unhealthy, dangerous, and entirely demeaning.” This goes to show that despite government attempts to address the abuses, migrant workers are still being taken advantage of and that sub-standard treatment will continue to be an issue in this area unless major changes come about.

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