I took an education class in school about diversity in the classroom. The professor, an amazon with strong opinions and a gentle disposition, told our impressionable minds that everyone is racist, because we live in a racist system. This came along with the tenet, No one is free while others are oppressed.
I’ve never questioned this wisdom of passive racism, but have mostly figured myself exempt from the aggressive racism still rife in the alleys of our collective consciousness.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if I’ve given myself undue credit, or if sometimes, questions that seem to be about race are about something else entirely.
The film is Hide. It is a thirty or so minute long documentary about illegal immigrant labor on dairy farms in Vermont, filmed this summer and made possible by a grant through Middlebury College. I saw the film at a showing in Burlington, Vermont. The showing was attended by 100 or so local residents. Perhaps some were brought in by the inexpensive flatbread and beer available for a small donation to Migrant Justice, an advocacy group for migrant farmworkers. Two of their members were available for questions after the screening, as well as the two filmmakers.
It was difficult to remain objective, since I know personally both the filmmakers and the subject matter.
Visually, the film is striking. A beautifully shot and dialogue light invitation to pensive reflection, it is essentially a glimpse into the daily life of a handful of migrant Central American workers, laboring without documentation in the Green Mountain state.
The film attempts to steer away from sweeping commentary about immigration reform, according to an answer provided by one filmmaker after the screening, in the interest of showing an objective view of the daily life, and general picture of what life is like for these hard-working laborers.
There is one aspect of the film, however that seems to be less objective. In support of quotes like, “We hope that one day things work out that those workers who are here have the right to leave their homes and walk down the street like any other person. I think this would be beautiful,” there are clips of non-Latino shoppers at a Vermont market on a sunny summer day, and again walking the streets of Middlebury, we find white and black window shoppers soaking up the sun.
In another scene, two young white boys (maybe 9 or 10 years old?) sit at a clean kitchen table chugging milk out of clear tall glasses. Perhaps this shot is in support of the line in the film of a native Spanish-speaker who says, “If you are drinking milk in the morning or in the night. Don’t forget that me and thousands and thousands of guys are milking the cows for you.”
It is not that I find the film to be a misrepresentation, this is certainly the way it is. The film’s exposure of what life is like for these workers, who fear to leave their homes because of possible arrest and deportation, who sometimes are not paid for weeks of work, who have little time to rest and sleep, is an accurate if grim portrait. What I mean to address here (please refer to am I racist? question), is the parts of this story that no one seems to address.
One of the first assertions that comes up when we, as a country, address immigrant labor, is that these workers are doing work that Americans don’t want to do. We skip the obvious question and go right to immigration reform, how do we control these illegal worker that we need.
What is the question? Simple. Why? Why is it that Americans don’t want to do this work? Is it because we are lazy over-educated sloths who don’t want to lift a finger. Perhaps that is true for some, but not all.
It’s the money. Farmwork is grueling, exhausting, soul-sucking work. But for some of us, it is impossible to replace the rewards that come along with it. However, the farmworkers that are American citizens have American bills to pay, and we cannot pay them for very long on seasonal minimum wage labor.
Take this example. The exchange rate of the Mexican peso to the American dollar is .08 to 1. Many immigrant laborers are provided housing on-farm, eliminating the need for transportation (and cost of) to work. Some farmers will take out cost of housing from wages. Some, including legal H2A workers, are housed in addition to regular hourly wages. The relative value of the pay a migrant worker from Mexico receives from hourly wages, and sends home to his family is considerably higher than an American worker.
Of course, this excludes the emotional difficulties of being separated from his family and culture. Although I do not mean to discount this, I intend to focus on the material facts and figures.
Focusing on migrant rights, although important, puts us off-track from labor rights for American citizens. As long as farmers can hire illegal immigrant labor, who they can exploit and underpay, there will be nothing done to address how we could realistically fill some of those jobs with the 7.9 percent of unemployed Americans. Some farmers, especially dairy, are struggling to stay afloat, and will do just about anything to remain in business. For arguments sake, let us say that we figured a way for farmers to make more money. How could we invite U.S. citizens to get their hands dirty?
For one, eliminate the agricultural exemptions that allow some small farms to get around minimum wage requirements and all farmworkers to be exempt from overtime requirements. Agricultural workers regularly work between 50 and 60 hours a week, and never get overtime. Think what that would translate into for an eight month season.
Additionally, raise the minimum wage to a livable wage. Here in Burlington, VT, there is a city ordinance that requires any contractor or vendor for the city are required to pay their employees a livable wage. The current figure is $17.71 for an employer that does not provide health insurance. The federal minimum wage is currently set at $7.25. Over a 10 dollar an hour difference (Vermont Minimum wage is $8.60).
As far as Migrant Justice goes? Yes. Let them work. Let them have a driver’s license, and let them go home to see their families. Expand the number of work visas for agricultural labor and apply federal and state taxes to these wages. Labor reform, though, is not just about immigration reform. Wake up Wobblies, your work isn’t even close to done.
Brooke Werley is a farmer and writer living in Northern Vermont. Her blog is thisgrowingup.wordpress.com. She also is part of the non-profit Agrarian Trust, that is working to provide solutions to land access for next generation farmers.