Update below.  As a one-time volunteer for the United Farm Workers (AFL-CIO) the human cost of industrialized field labor has never failed to grab my attention (and shake it painfully, even 40 years later.) Though the UFW made vital breakthroughs in improving the lives of field workers in California, lives of millions of others have continued to be wracked, ruined and exploited in the years since.  The kind of work done and the bodily injury sustained by such workers can scarcely be imagined by Americans who benefit from what they do.  A scene in H2 Worker, a 1990 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner by Stephanie Black, of women picking meat out of crab shells, at knuckle-stabbing speed, is enough to turn you off such  purchases for ever.

Can Cutter

Cane Cutter

I ran across the movie, I think, as a result of a Netflix algorithm that decided “You’ll Like this Film.”  It was right, though “like” is hardly the appropriate word.  The focus of the 70 minute documentary is Jamaican sugar-cane workers who were then being brought to the US each year as ‘legal workers,’ on H2 visas.   Legal.  As in slavery was legal at one time.  Even if the men were paid the minimum wage promised, their lives would be barely supportable — perhaps for a season or two, as young men can support football or military training, but no more.  The pictures of the forty and fifty year olds show what it means to do the back-breaking labor year after year after year –grasping stands of cane, forcing them low with the weight of the body, bending and stooping, whacking at the base with three-foot long machetes until cane separates from root, separating top matter from the main cane and tossing each in different directions — hours and hours a day.  And, as the men point out, with pay-stubs and sharp understanding, contracted for minimum wage is pure pie-in-the-sky.

Movie H2 workers PosterTo start with, they are paid piece-rate, not by the hour.  And, piece rate is determined not on a fixed $/row of cane but adjusted for what the cane brings at the mills that day, depending on sugar content, demand, and other market variables.  One of the men calculated he was making about one dollar an hour when the promised minimum wage was just over $5.

Black and her small guerrilla crew do a very very good job of filming the men at the pre-dawn wake-ups, getting on the buses, riding on the buses and at work. Substantial time is spent in the bunk houses interviewing or just watching the men.  We get a good introduction to the work, the methods of payment, the opportunities for shaving the wages and the sheer exhausting, monotonous labor. [This had to be risky, surreptitious work as the labor camps are fenced and guarded.  I once got run out of one in Sanger, California at the point of a gun.]  One man, getting a rice and bean lunch from a field wagon says they can not even sit to eat.  “It’s company time,” he says.  He and others trudge back into the fields, eating as they go.

When we first see the cane workers we are surprised at what appear to be metal shin and foot guards, much as baseball catchers wear, on both legs, as well as a large metal glove on the non-blade arm.  It’s for protection against the swinging blade, one’s own or a friend’s.  Surely this is an improvement from the days when African-Americans cut cane in the months before the cotton bloomed in the ’30s and ’40s or, following them, the original guest workers from the Bahamas.  The injuries must have been fierce and many.  Which isn’t to say the workers in the ’80s, with more protection, are safe — or are paid sick leave of any kind.  Still the same deal: no work, no pay.

[There are some jaw-dropping clips from newsreel footage of the time proclaiming the benefits of extra field work and the happiness of the ‘colored’ to have it.]

There are touching readings of letters written home and back to the men, shots of end-of-season purchases of small gifts to bring home. We are drawn to these men, whether Jamaican or, in other scenes, Mexican, all of them men in the best sense of the word — kind, thoughtful, caring, thinking of home, children and wives; not one we wouldn’t be glad to have as a neighbor.   Black also gets interviews with a foreman – who admits he is paid quite well–, a representative of the sugar industry, a Jamaican consul in the United States and several labor researchers and advocates, including one short clip of Chavez at an early UFW Board meeting inveighing against the H2 visas. Former Prime Minister Michael Manley is given substantial time.

The title, “H2 Worker”, is a reference to a US visa program allowing a certain number of non-American workers into the US to do work for which, it has been certified, there are no national workers available.  “H2 A” is for agricultural workers, “H2 B” is for non agricultural such as crab cleaners and house keepers. Interviews with a Department of Labor official does not give us confidence either in the certification process, or in the oversight of wages and hours which such a program promises.

The movie itself ends with a spontaneous work-stoppage over wages. Since the workers are visa holders, the grower immediately calls the Department of Labor, visas are revoked, buses appear and the men are sent back to Jamaica — to be replaced in days with another plane load or two.  It’s a pretty leaky bucket to put any hope in.

In addition to the interviews and scenes in the fields and camps, H2 Worker sports a lively sound-track, much of it from the Jamaican reggae we are so familiar with.  At times the catchy, happy tunes seem to work against the point the movie is making about the misery of the workers, however listening to the lyrics corrects the impression.  The tune might be happy; the words are about life and the struggles we are witnessing.

The film could have used English sub-titles, however.  Jamaican English is lovely and lilting, but takes an ear grown accustomed to it, particularly when the audio is sometimes of ‘documentary’ quality.  I’m sure there was a budget issue, however, Spanish sub-titles are included — which I used to help me understand the English in some sequences– so I wish those for English had been included.  It’s a common occurrence in all sorts of English language films, to assume that one dialect fits all.  Not true for most of us.  The default should be sub-titles for all, not the reverse.

In a good twenty minute update from 1992, we learn that soon after the movie was made most, a class action suit found that some 10,000 workers had been cheated of some or all of their wages.  $51 million in back pay was awarded –but not received, as the judgement was reversed by a Florida appeals court, citing “ambiguities” in the H2 contract.  Shortly after, all human cane harvesters were replaced by mechanized harvesters.  Having seen the work involved one wonders what took so long. (The bottom line, of course.  Cheap, exploitable labor put off the necessity of capital investment.)

The update goes on to look at other, still existing, H2 workers — from potato pickers to crab cleaners to sheep-herders — all of it dirty, hard and destructive of bodies.  10,000 in North Carolina, 2,000 in Colorado, 9,600 in Maryland.  The limit is officially 66,000 a year, however in 2007, 254,000 H2B workers were certified.  There is no limit on H2A workers and there are were about 75,000 in the US that year.

A few good folks continue to advocate for the workers.  In particular, a group called Farmworker Justice, tracks the American migrant labor environment.   The Coalition of Imokalee Workers, has finally negotiated a fair wage settlement with big Florida tomato growers and continues to push for new such deals.  FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Committee) headed by long -time organizer Baldemar Velasquez, [here with Bill Moyers]  works primarily in the South.

Like the famous Edward R Murrow “Harvest of Shame,” (and here) in 1960 which set the stage for public awareness of migrant labor and the soon-to-follow efforts of Chavez, “H2 Worker” does a tremendous service.  Though its focus on cane workers is no longer relevant, the bigger issues it raises about all such menial labor, those who are brought in to do it at substandard wages and conditions, the flaunting of law and decency by the corporations and the fecklessness of government agencies set up to be referee and umpire continue to be sadly true.

Other films worth watching, and bringing your kids to watch with you, are The Harvest, (2010) about child labor, The American Dream (1990) about meat packers, Life and Debt (2001) also by Stephanie Black, about life in Jamaica, The Price of Sugar (2007) about sugar and Haitian workers.  Harlan County (1976) is about a 1973 strike in the coal fields. And of course Fighting For Our Lives, a documentary about the 1973 UFW strike –in which I took part– and struggle with the Teamsters union.  [Looks like it’s available in parts on YouTube, though buying a copy would be better!] And, a new discover, here, of various clips and out-takes of UFW related media coverage.

And of course, it needn’t end with watching movies. There is good work to do and support. Take a look at the sites above just for US immigrant work.  Migration and migrant labor is an enormous problem around the world, with hundreds of thousands taking jobs that citizens don’t want, and no one should have to take until safety, comfort and wages reach levels we can all agree are adequate, right and fair

First posted 4/29/14 13:39

Update:

The film is 24 years old. The issues raised by H2A visas is not.  Here, a farm in Washington state is apparently trying to use H2A visa workers to side-step employing locals and their notions of fair-pay and strikes to bring pressure to bear.

 

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