Migrant Labor

The Lansing State Journal has an excellent article this morning on migrant farm labor. The story reports on a recent conference in Lansing that focused on a March 2010 report from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. The report documents the living conditions of migrant laborers who come to Michigan for seasonal work in agriculture. The LSJ story brings the issue home by telling the story of individuals who move from camp to camp, sometimes staying in a single location for only a few days. Conditions in these camps are described as “third-world” in the article—very poor sanitary facilities, with as many as 35 people sharing a single toilet or shower, and no privacy. Toilets and showers lack so much as a curtain to be drawn, and people are sleeping and dressing in common quarters.

This is not the first time migrant farm labor has exerted a claim on the public’s attention. John Steinbeck’s great novel The Grapes of Wrath follows a white family that is forced into migrant farm labor in California after foreclosure and eviction from their Oklahoma farm. Steinbeck hoped that seeing the plight of white Okies would overcome the racism that rationalized treatment of farm workers. Legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow put together a television documentary called Harvest of Shame that galvanized public opinion for a time. Many of the migrants in Murrow’s film were Southern blacks. Outrage over treatment of Southern farm workers based in Homestead, Florida became a now forgotten theme of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the film.

For the last forty years, migrants are increasingly drawn from Spanish speaking populations. Cesar Chavez led workers in California in an attempt to unionize and promoted a national boycott. His work was documented in a film called The Wrath of Grapes. Although many of these Latino migrant farm workers are citizens and permanent residents, others work in the U.S. and either return seasonally to homes south of the border or send earnings back to families that remain. Migrant issues thus now tend to get wrapped up in the larger issue of immigration.

Oddly, the LSJ article is not very clear on why these migrant workers are in here in Michigan in the first place. I suppose this is supposed to be the sort of thing that everybody already knows, but in my experience with college students who think food is manufactured in much the same way as automobiles or I-pods, they don’t. So pardon me while I explain.

Food comes from farms. To be utterly blunt, farmers grow plants in the field, and there are many tasks such as sowing seeds, planting vines or trees, weeding, pruning and finally harvesting that have to be done at exactly the right time or all the other effort is wasted. The plants die in cold or wet weather, or the fruits and grain rot. In the old days, all of these jobs were done by human hands. While many farming tasks have become thoroughly mechanized over the last half-century, there are still quite a few that require hand labor. Harvesting fruit crops from orchards is among the jobs that have not been mechanized. Fruits are easily damaged, and they are in irregular places on the tree. They also ripen and are ready to be harvested over a period of weeks. You have to know which fruits to pick, and which to leave on the tree a little longer.

But if you have a couple of hundred apple, cherry or peach trees, or a thousand vines in your vineyard, all of that fruit still has to be harvested within a fairly narrow time window. The rest of the year, a horticulturalist can manage the tasks with a handful of people, but you need to flood the orchard with hands to get the crop in during that window. For six or eight weeks, there is work for a lot of people. Migrant laborers move from farm to farm, starting in the South and heading north as crops ripen and get ready for picking. But although the work is hard and not without skill, it has never been what one might call lucrative. Some of the hardest ethical issues in agriculture have to do with the way that farm owners try to keep laborers from exploiting the fact that when they are needed they are really needed in order to gain concessions.

As philosophy, the question becomes, “How do we understand these ethical issues?” The LSJ article uses a framing that has become commonplace in the years since Murrow’s film: This is a problem of farmworker rights. My book The Agrarian Vision examines this framing and notes that Steinbeck recognized something that those of us who take the rights view overlook. It is often the case that the “rights view” fails to articulate the ethical issues in the terms that the migrant workers themselves see them. Rights talk frames an ethical obligation in terms of those things—basic needs, respect—to which all people are entitled just because they are human beings. Instead of a missing entitlement, farm workers may see their own situation as one in which the need to address unique ties to specific individuals—family and fellow travelers—is ethically paramount. In a similar vein, Jane Addams wrote about the disconnect that occurs when a universal ethic of rights was used to re-interpret the ethical injustices experienced by poor immigrant families in Chicago around the turn of the last century.  It is less a matter of what one deserves by right than a matter of coping day by day and sharing with friends, family and compatriots to the very limit of one’s ability to do so.

In a strange way, the practice of interpreting migrant issues in terms of human rights denies people the language in which they themselves would talk about their own situation. As well intended as rights-talk usually is, it can create further barriers that only isolate the victims of injustice even more fully.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

1 comment to Migrant Labor

  • UFW organizers believed that a reduction in produce sales by 15 was sufficient to wipe out the profit margin of the boycotted product. Also in 1972 he fasted in response to s passage of legislation that prohibited boycotts and strikes by farm workers during the harvest seasons.