The Corn Husker State

It’s a rite of passage in Nebraska. Around the age of 13, on summer mornings you climb onto a bus at 4am and head out to a hot, humid cornfield to work for minimum wage. It’s an initiation into the workforce. You prove you can do a hard day’s work for about 6 weeks.

It feels more like a hazing into adulthood, and all teens can do is grit their teeth and remember it’s only a few weeks. They can earn up to $2000 by the end of the season, which is astronomical to a 13 year old with only data overages to cover. 

Nebraska in July means 100 degree temperatures in rainy or wet fields; so humid you’re required to wear a poncho to stay dry. You work no matter what the weather is doing, in the blistering sun, and then you ride the bus home. The brutal conditions and low pay make it a job generally only suitable for teens. They have no bills and healthy bodies. Even still, many of the workers don’t stick it out for the entire season, but that doesn’t reflect poorly on a resume since it’s not a “real job”. Prospective employers and colleges are just impressed you took the initiative.

Most of the applicants are between 14 and 16 years old. By then, students are looking for better jobs, higher pay, and more suitable working conditions. They take positions at supermarkets, sandwich shops, and departments stores.Farm work is back breaking, exhausting, and often dangerous. It’s hard to find workers who will show up for an entire season. 

They’re Stealing Our Jobs

Aside from the season of teen detassling, produce needs planted and picked year-round. 

It may be America’s worst kept secret. Most of what you find on your plate wasn’t put there by a middle-class Caucasian, but by the hands of undocumented workers.

It’s known to the point of parody. Do a Google Image search of the words “Field Worker”, “Factory Farm Worker”, or “Harvest Worker” and at least acknowledge that it isn’t a secret. The factor keeping our food affordable is the sweat of migrant workers.

The Statistics

Immigration is an emotionally charged topic, but numbers are numbers.

According to U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey[1], NAWS, approximately 48% of farm workers lack work authorization. The Labor Department concedes that this number is low, and estimates the true number to be slightly greater than 70%. Even in an anonymous survey, workers are afraid to admit their status, and nearly half simply refused to disclose the information. This means that of approximately 2.5 million people planting, weeding, harvesting, tending to chickens and livestock, and slaughtering your meat, an estimated 1,750,000 are undocumented workers.

Strawberry Fields Forever

Many families are finding their American Dream turning into a daily nightmare, and sending word home that their lives in the US aren’t much better than the lives they left behind. Harsh conditions, unfair labor practices, unsafe working environment, and the constant fear of discovery take every moment of peace from these families. Immigration has been declining, as America is no longer the place families can make a dream come true. They are doing their best to push back without invoking the anger or disappointment of companies that offer a paycheck, however small.

In March of 2015, we brought you a story of unsafe practices and threats of deportation at the Hormel plant. In spite of petitions, workers report that the pushback from management has silenced them. 

Driscoll’s, the best-known name in Strawberries, claimed they issued a “major wage hike” to end a worker boycott. The boycott was to raise worker’s pay to $13 per 10-12 hour day, and for safer work environments, including an end to sexual harassment by crew bosses. Crew leaders say that while the sexual harassment is being addressed, other demands were largely dismissed.

Picking Poverty

Labor leaders claim that BerryMex, one harvester contracted by Driscoll’s, pays $3 per hour during peak harvest in safe conditions, and half of that in off-peak periods. More can be earned, but the conditions workers must endure are far more treacherous. In addition to the meager pay, harsh quotas are enforced, and that $1.50 an hour could be fined against, or a job lost completely if the quota isn’t met.

The laborers did return to the fields, but with their demands still unmet. Many returned out of fear or desperation. Having taken two weeks off without pay, many were facing homelessness, and others feared deportation for noncompliance.

Driscoll’s is by no means alone in this treatment. In fact, workers say that Driscoll’s offers more humane conditions that many other contractors, but it’s a name you know, which is why they are leaned on so heavily by groups like Democracy Now. The public needs a name, a face, and a story before they feel involved enough to take action. They need an emotional response.

They also need numbers. If workers were paid a living wage, offered paid shade breaks, and offered benefits like health insurance and social security, the difference would be passed on to the consumer. The hike would be noticed most significantly in the produce aisle, and the average American consumer could expect a rise in their grocery bill of about $79 per year.

A Shift in the System

California recognizes that without their pool of migrant workers, the dual problems of food cost and food waste are exacerbated. By 2019, all workers will be covered by their improved wages, earning between $12 and $15 an hour, with hourly shade breaks, and healthcare. With this regulation being statewide, this gives workers the freedom to leave farms when they feel they are being abused, exploited, or treated unfairly, and find work making as much or more than the job they are leaving.

What You Can Do

Legislature has been introduced and shot down, seeking to create an agricultural work permit, or granting citizenship to farm laborers. In spite of the fact that American citizens simply aren’t seeking this work, politicians opted to keep this dirty secret and deny any form of safe haven. This creates a dangerous environment for workers, who live in constant fear of falling ill, becoming injured in their dangerous work, and of deportation. 

Frankly, this is a bigger issue than any party understands. In our echo chambers, we either hear that ungrateful illegals are whining about having jobs and should work harder to improve their homelands, or that off season tomatoes taste like the tears of an abused and exploited people. 

Seek opposing opinions. Know where your representatives stand. Learn the statistics, the facts, and the studies, from unbiased sources. Research, have hard conversations, and then vote. 

[1] According to the survey done in the fiscal year of 2011-2012, the last year figures were available

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