This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 4, "Winter's Promise." Find more from that issue here.
In Louisiana in 1978, the owner of the “Welcome Home Ranch “pleaded guilty to holding two Mexican workers shackled in leg chains until they paid off a debt by working in the fields. In Columbia, South Carolina, crewleader Larry Wilson pleaded guilty in federal court to kidnapping and enslavement. In August, 1980, Tony Booker, a crewleader in eastern North Carolina, was tried and convicted on the charge of slavery. His two camp “assistants,” known to many migrants as his henchmen, were also under federal indictment for the same charge.
These incidents are far from unique.
Brutality in migrant camps and in the lives of migrants is a matter of course; it is the single most important factor defining their experience. The coercion may not always be as blatant as physical restraint. Control through dependence on alcohol, financial bondage or the worker’s lack of perceivable job options is just as effective.
The hardships of inadequate housing, health care, sanitation, legal aid, employment benefits and wages are well documented. Behind these statistics and grim conditions lies the reality of the people who do migrant labor - people who, by the very nature of the system, are among the most marginal, outcast, unrepresented, unwanted human beings in our society. The migrant labor system demands the least protected, most desperate workers and refuses to let those who enter change that enslaved condition.
Migrant farmworkers follow three major “streams” through the cropfields of the United States. One begins in the Baja California region and goes up the Pacific Coast to Washington State. The second originates in Texas, splits in two, then spreads out through either the central states or along the Atlantic Coast. The third starts in Florida and follows the Atlantic Coast northward. Most migrants are either blacks (primarily from Florida) or Hispanics. There are relatively few whites in the “stream, ’’and a growing number of Haitians. Lately, an increasing number of Mexican-Americans and undocumented workers have been working the Atlantic route; they now compose about half the workers in that stream. By far the largest portion of migrants working under crewleaders are the undocumented (so-called “illegal”) workers and blacks. The larger the farm, the more likely the owner will use migrants hired through, and disciplined by, a crewleader; the extra cost of a middleman is justified to owners because the crewleader shields cost of a middleman is justified to owners because the crewleader shields them from legal liabilities ranging from collecting social security to maintaining liability insurance on vehicles transporting migrants to being charged with enslavement.
Somewhere between 1.5 and 1.6 million migrant and seasonal workers harvest farm products in 42 states. This number does not include short-term, imported farmworkers who are shipped into a given area by landowners and then returned to their native land under conditions monitored by the U.S. Government. For example, some 9,000 West Indians travel by chartered plane each year to spend up to six months cutting sugar cane in South Florida.
All these workers, whatever their color or native origin, have one thing in common: they work in the fields, with little power over their day-today fate, because they have found no other options, because the alternatives they face are even worse - starvation, crime and ultimately jail, living in a mental institution, abandoning their families. ... In the following pages we present a multi-faceted portrait of the world of migrant workers. The interviews were conducted by Alma Blount and Martin Gonzalez (who also helped us with this introduction). Steven Petrow’s profile surveys the conditions surrounding Jamaican cane cutters in South Florida. Interspersed throughout are Jerry Eisner’s photographs of Mexican and black workers in Florida. Though vastly different cultures are represented here, we believe these sections also reveal the disturbing similarities in the lives of migrant farmworkers which make a fundamental change in the system necessary.
When a man is down and out, when he has no transportation to get himself back and forth to a regular job, and there’s no proper bus system to get him back and forth, then he’s kind of stuck. So he’s willing to take any kind of a job he can get, if there’s a roof over his head and three meals a day. Even though it’s only minimum wage, he don’t care, he just wants to work, he wants to eat and wants a roof over his head. He don’t want to end up in jail every other week, drunk.
So he wants to work. But his hands are tied because he don’t have transportation. So he’s willing to do anything: crop tobacco, pick peaches, anything, pick cabbages, tomatoes, anything, he’ll go from one to the other. That’s the way people get on the migrant stream. They’re down and out, that’s how they usually start.
But you see what they do: they get you started, and they keep you broke. You get in the hole and you don’t get out. You’re flat broke. You can’t get to the store, you’re too far away from the store unless they ride you there, or you take a chance hitchhiking — and then another guy is just going to pick you up and hijack you and take you to his camp, that happens all the time. Or the cops will pick you up if you’re hitchhiking — you just ain’t supposed to leave that camp!
So you live on the camp and that’s it.
If you don’t drink and you don’t smoke, you can try to save up your money and skip out.
I’ve been doing farm work off and on for a couple of years; for the last year I’ve been working on it steady. I’ve stayed with tomatoes in Plant City, Florida, that was pretty good. Then I went to oranges, in Crescent City. I worked for a colored guy there, but he was good to work for. But he’s really just another one - they’re all the same when it comes to booze — he’d make $2,000 a week at least on just wine and beer. There may be 50 guys on the camp. He makes five dollars a piece with them at least, and that’s every day.
I got involved with this here crew when they picked me up at the Mission, “Daily Bread.” That’s where they pick everybody up.
This was in Orlando, Florida. Everybody goes to Daily Bread to eat at lunchtime. It’s a free meal. This is where they came and ask you: “Well, do you need a job? We’re going to pick peaches, pick oranges or crop tobacco. We’ll take care of your wine habits, or your cigarettes, whatever you need, we’ve got it — three meals a day and a nice place to sleep. You want some wine now? We’ll give you some wine now. You need cigarettes? We’ll furnish that too, on the way.”
You ask them, “You got good food?” “Oh yeah,” they say, “we’ve got the best.”
Now the person who’s doing this is not necessarily the crewleader. Most crewleaders have one guy whose job is just to go out and pick up men. He may do odd jobs around the camp, but every week his main thing to do is to go out, every week, and to send a van for more men. Because every week there are at least a half a dozen men leaving the camp. Either they disappear or they’re short of money and they can’t take it so they take off.
Now when I was coming up here, I never got a bite to eat. They brought us something to drink and some cigarettes, but all the way from Florida they never gave us one sandwich or nothing. The trip took over 12 hours.
By South Carolina we were starting to think we’d done the wrong thing. We were getting screwed. But we had no choice then. We were all depressed, we didn’t have no work, we had all tried the labor pools in Florida and they just weren’t hiring that many.
That week in Orlando before they’d picked me up, I’d had only one day of work with the labor pools. Now you’re only allowed two days at the Mission and one day at the Salvation Army to stay. But if you don’t have a job, soon you’re out on the streets with no money and no place to stay. So you sleep underneath the bridge or in the bushes, and hide where the cops won’t pick you up. Sooner or later you get tired of that, so you start selling your blood plasma, anything to get money, anything just to keep alive. So if somebody comes by and offers you a job, you take it!
Now you kinda know half of what they tell you is bullshit, but you expect them to feed you at least, and you know that you can run a bill for wine and cigarettes.
Now by the time we got to the camp, it was the next morning before we got anything to eat.
When we got to the camp, there weren’t any beds made up. We had to put beds together. There were dirty beat-up mattresses with holes in them, but they did give us sheets. (They didn’t give us no blanket.) It was crowded. The room couldn’t hold more than eight people, but we had 10. They were putting them on top of one another.
We started working the very next day. We were priming tobacco. We were pulling em from the bottom of the stalk, sand lugging. Then we’d go back the next week and hit the middle with another four or five leaves, then come back later again and get the top leaves.
It’s tremendously hot work and there’s no breeze. You wear the dirtiest clothes you can wear. You try to cover yourself up good from the sun.
We primed for the whole month of July just about. It wasn’t until August that we started getting to the middle of the stalk.
Now some of these farmers treat you nice. They bring out some pop maybe at 10 or 10:30. But some places were real bad. You wouldn’t get a break or they wouldn’t bring out nothing. Sometimes you wouldn’t even get water for hours.
You’d ask for it, and it would take them an hour to get a canteen of water out. And they’d set it at the end of the road, and you might have to travel a mile to get it.
Lunchtime they’d give you two pieces of bologna with bread. We were lucky. They included our lunch in the $35 a week we pay for food. Some places charge extra.
I got my first paycheck that Saturday. I’d come on a Monday night, worked Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday of that week. I believe I had something like 33 hours. I was supposed to have been making $3.10 an hour. They took out for social security and $35 for board. I think I owed them $37 or so for liquor. I only got $12 or so out of the deal.
Now when they pay you, sometimes they’ll take you to the store, but you can’t leave, they’ll tell you you can’t leave. They’ll say: if you’re going to be getting in the van, you’ve got to be coming back.
I didn’t ever attempt to leave, you get the feeling there are henchmen there ready for you if you try to leave. If you just want to take off and leave, you better be looking over your shoulder, because there’s going to be someone there waiting to pick you up.
I’ll tell you: the men on the camp fight with each other. Somebody cutting somebody’s throat ain’t unusual. If you don’t watch everything they’ll steal your socks, or they’ll steal your pants; this goes on constantly all the time.
The men fight with each other because they’re nervous. They’re unsatisfied with what they’re doing, they owe the boss money, and they’re just not making it.
Sometimes there are fist fights, or they grab a pipe or anything they can get their hands on. I’ve seen a couple of heads broken.
I never went to sleep unless I had a brick in my hand, ready to defend myself.
We had whoring on the camp, but we didn’t have as much of it as other camps do. Sometimes they’d come around at one or two in the morning. They’d knock on the door and just come walkin in. The woman I knew would take you for whatever she could get. Sometimes it’d be $5, sometimes $10. You’d pay on the spot, they didn’t add it to your bill.
Some camps would just have bang-up jobs. Like the camp I was on in South Carolina, the crew boss told the girls, he said, you’re here to screw, and he told the men: that’s what they’re here for and you can do whatever you want with em. And he told the girls this is what you’re here for and if you don’t like it you can get your ass out. He told the guys: grab one you want and take it in your room.
Most weeks I worked I came up short and I’d have to borrow money from the boss. If I’d borrow $5, it would cost me $10 to pay him back. He always charged double.
I was afraid to leave owing money cause I knew I’d get my head busted that way, so I waited till I was even with the books and I had paid my bill and I had $5 left, and I just walked off.
- interview by Alma Blount
Tom Williams (not his real name) has been “doing the migrant work” for about one-and-a-third years. For the last week he was living in a house which he said “wasn’t worth the ground it was built on.” The windows were all broken, the door would not shut and the roof leaked. As we talked, he was waiting on a bus that would take him to a city in Michigan where his brother lived. He got the ticket from one of the local social service agencies that work with migrants. He had no other money and nothing he could say he owned. His wife, he said, did not want to hear from him. I asked him how he started migrant work.
This guy picked me up and told me there’s better work down here, started messing around and when I woke up I was in South Carolina.
I was living in Memphis at the time with my wife.
I met him up to a liquor store, I think it was a Thursday morning. This guy said, “What you doing?.” I said, “Nothing, right now.”
He said, “You want to make some money?” I told him, “What kind?” He said, “I want you to come to South Carolina with me, you can make yourself $400-$500 a week.”
I told him, “I don’t know,” you know, told him I had a wife and two kids. He said, “You want to ride around with me?” I said, “Yeah.”
Got to riding and when I woke up I was in South Carolina. Don’t know his real name but they call him Candyman.
When I woke up the next morning I was lost. He asked me was I willing to work and pick some peaches. I said no, I didn’t feel like it.
He said, “Come on, you can go out there and do the best you can.”
I picked up 60 — 60 that day, baskets, whatever you call it.
He said, “When you get ready to leave you can go home.”
I said, “How’m I going to go home if I don’t have any money?”
He said, “You’ll just have to stay down here with us.”
I want to go home, I wanted to go home ever since I been down here.
Five dollars a week, that’s all I ever got. I stayed with him about two months, something like that. The crewleader’s name was Joe Brown, that was one of his assistants I guess.
You got 40 cents every time you filled out one of those little old sacks. I filled 60 the first day. I thought they were honest, just like most people I been working for. When I drawed five dollars I knew there was something wrong then.
You had to pay $2.50 for a plate for food three times a day. We didn’t pay no rent, just for the food, beer was about 90 cents. Five dollars for a pint of shine, $2.50 for wine. I never did see the book, he could have put down anything. He just called you in there and handed you five dollars.
When I left there he come over to the next place and told the guy I owed him $50 for the beer and wine. I went across the street to another camp, there was another camp across the street from it. He come over and told that man I owed him $50. That man’s daughter paid him off.
He [the second boss] treated me right; I got to drive the truck. He gave me $135 a week, room and board was free. I cleared about $25-$30 a week.
Why didn’t you go home then?
He kept telling me to stay, you know, I’d get over: on a camp, man, you can’t get over. You turn around and hear all that stuff and you look up and someone’s fighting. First thing you want is a drink so you can get to sleep.
— interview by Martin Gonzalez
I’m owed four weeks of back wages. But it’s inconsequential. He knows and I know that he owes it to me. I’d rather not bother with litigation to try to get it back. After all, I’ve been with the man for 11 years. We carry on a kind of thing with each other. He’s a friend, basically.
We have a thing: all I want is enough for cigarettes, for a couple of beers, and I’m okay. I’m willing to say it’s my fault with this money business. I’m willing to just let it go. It sounds like the man’s ripping me off, but he isn’t. Listen, he would’ve paid me. I just didn’t collect. I don’t know why.
I’ve got an honorary degree, from the University of Montana. They gave it to me because I have so much je ne sais quoi — so much know-how, in literature, in English.
I didn’t go to high school but I’ve got a high school equivalency, I got it while I was in jail.
I’ve been doing migrant work since 1968. They said, “Hey, fellow, you wanna pick some oranges?” I’d never even seen an orange tree. They told me, “Well, all you have to do is handle the ladder.” I’ve been pickin oranges ever since. Except sometimes I come up a little late and pick sweet potatoes.
I’ve worked in steel mills, lumber camps, foundries. I’ve done metal work. I can paint with either hand.
I wouldn’t say I’ll never go back to migrant work.
Somebody has got to feed the population.
I guess I could’ve had a farm if I’d wanted one. I was born in Idaho. I was the only son. My father died in the ’30s. He was Indian and my mother was French.
I never really knew what my father did for a living. He was a no-good S.O.B. is all my mother ever told me about him. He was seldom home. I’ve got two living sisters and that’s all. I’m 57. I never got married. No, not me.
I feel very proud to be a migrant. I’m putting the meal on your table.
And besides that, it’s good outside work. I haven’t had to work in a factory now for 12 years.
I’ve liked my job and I don’t feel bad about it, even though I never got the four weeks of pay. I didn’t get it because I never asked for it.
What do I need money for, tell me that? I never did mind not having too much cash money because it’s too dangerous carrying cash money around with you on the camp.
I don’t regret having been a migrant. I don’t feel degraded. I’ll probably do it again. Somebody has to do it.
— interview by Alma Blount
We were in front of the city mission in Jacksonville. We’d just left the labor pool and we were waiting to begin cutting sugar cane in October in Fort Lauderdale. So we were between jobs and we were low on money.
While we were standing in front of the mission, two black men drove up in a van. They said, “Does anybody want to go to North Carolina to pick sweet potatoes?” I said to myself, well, we can go up there for three weeks and then get on back here and do sugar cane.
I asked them, “What are the living conditions there?” He said, “We’ve got a good camp. It’s clean. We’ve got good food. We charge you $5.00 a day for board and room and we’re paying 45 cents a bushel.” He said we’d be near a town called Benson which is not too far from Fayetteville.
So he got about eight fellas and we left. We drove until about 2:00 p.m. and when we got to the camp, this guy put me in room number 10 with about seven guys. He gave me a sheet to put on the bed but the mattress was all black and damp, and had holes in it. The cement floor was all wet.
But we went to sleep. At about 5.30 in the morning they got us up. We stood in line for about an hour to get something to eat: some grits and a piece of pork on a paper plate. There was no dining room. We had to stand outside in the rain to eat. (We could have gone back into our room but it was so dirty in there we didn’t want to.) In order to get coffee, we had to get an old tin can and wash it out and use it as a cup.
Then the crew leader came and he said, “I don’t like to put anyone out in the field when it’s wet like this, but I’ve got some sweet potatoes that are already dug up and we’re gonna have to pick.”
So this went on, but it rained so hard the next day, and the conditions of the camp were so bad — like there was no place to take a shower, they only had an outhouse, no toilet facilities, and they were charging us $5.00 a day for this! — we were going to leave.
They said, “Well, you owe us money you know. If you’ll just stay,” they said, “soon you’ll be able to make some money.”
But we were disgusted. So we decided that we’d better just leave.
I’d heard that they’d take you up to North Carolina and wouldn’t pay you, that they’d take you out in the woods and keep you on that camp, but I wanted to find out for myself if it was true. You know, you can’t believe everything you hear.
I’ve worked migrant work all over the United States. I was in Yuma, Arizona, last year; I picked lemons and lettuce. I’ve picked apples in Oregon and Washington. In California I’ve done grapes.
In the five years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never seen anything quite like this. I’ve never seen it this bad. This is the worst I’ve ever seen!
I was a supervisor in a men’s clothing factory before I got into this work, in Richmond, Virginia. I supervised 285 women making men’s suits. I was making $22,500 a year when I left.
I was having marital problems. I got a divorce.
I’ve been doing migrant work for a year and a half and I’m sick of it. I was with Westinghouse for 21-and-a-half years. Then I went into the home improvement business with my son. We were making pretty good money until 1974, when the bottom dropped out of everything for us.
Then I started having problems with my wife. Then my son got killed. His best friend shot him but he got away with it - they ruled it an accident.
That topped it all off. I just got to the point where I didn’t give a damn.
I went down to Florida, and since then I’ve been fooling around with farm work and labor pools.
The older you get, the harder this life gets for you. It’s a rough tough life. I don ’t like it a bit. But it’s the next best thing to no job at all. It’s easy to get a job like this because most people don’t want to do it.
For conditions to improve, the workers are going to have to be unionized. But it’s going to need a little more intelligence on the part of the people who are doing the farm work. Most of the people who I run into who do this work are alcoholics or are sub-normal, mentally ill, or they’re not educated.
In this state [North Carolina] you ’re up against a very, very tough battle. I understand you got right-to-work laws and all this stuff. It’s going to have to start up North - unionizing - like in Ohio or Michigan, and move down.
And you’ve got to have money. Somebody’s going to have to put up some money so people have a place to meet. You can’t just walk around the orange groves, or the sugar fields, or the sweet potato fields. If you tried that, you’d get your head beat in.
You’d have to rent a small building in a town. You’d have to have a central location. You’d have to put out a lot of leaflets. You’d have to get to know the workers. You may start out with only 10 people and hope that it grows.
If you take Minute Maid Orange Juice, and you see the fancy cans and you pay the price for them — if people only knew what was behind that: the slave labor, the bad conditions, the poor wages.
It’s a shame that these big companies — and they’re the ones behind these big farms — that they get away with this and people don’t know anything about it. It’s the companies that hire these contractors who in turn get these guys all boozed up and take all their money away from them and keep them paralyzed until they get to the I-don’t-care point.
As far as I’m concerned this is just a damn lousy way to live. You’re not living when you do this, you’re barely existing. For me, I’ve got to find a change. And I’m hoping it’s in a bigger city, rather than going back to farm work.
— interviews by Alma Blount
Sugar Cane Slavery
Florida has 300,000 acres of sugar cane fields, with an annual harvest valued at $350 million. For over 30 years, that cane has been cut by legions of Jamaican and other West Indian workers because the sugar corporations — such as United States Sugar and Gulf & Western — find this labor force “fast, cheap and legal.”
Fred Sikes, a vice president of the United States Sugar Corporation in Clewiston, Florida, says that American workers “are just not willing to cut the cane. There is a sociological stigma.” A colleague of Sikes at the Gulf & Western operation 10 miles down the road in South Bay is more blunt: “I am saying that no American will cut cane anywhere in the U.S. at any price.”
It is true that Americans do not currently cut cane in Florida. However, until World War II they cut all of Florida’s cane. Marshall Barry, a Tampa economist and former professor of economics at New College in Sarasota, Florida, asks: “What has America done in 100 years to an extremely productive labor force? All of a sudden they are unable to wield a machete? Is there some kind of genetic change that makes their arms cramp when they pick up a handle? Or is it that conditions are so rotten?”
Barry and many others believe that the sugar corporations “want a captive labor force, an exploitable one that they have power over. They don’t have power over Americans. But they do over the Jamaicans.”
Before doing any work, each Jamaican cane cutter signs a contract with the sugar corporations relinquishing nearly all civil and human rights. The Jamaican Council of Churches has reported that the cane cutters in Florida are treated like slaves. So have legal services attorneys; so have newspaper reporters; so have research scholars and so have the Jamaicans themselves. As far back as 1951, the President’s (Truman) Commission on Migratory Labor focused on the lack of “official vigilance for the protection of living and working standards of alien farm laborers.”
But in 1980, the federal government, acting through the Department of Labor and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), apparently condones these conditions; in fact, these agencies participate in the perpetuation of the “captive labor” system. Also, for the first time this year, the federal government is recruiting Haitian refugees to work in the cane, under the same contract as the Jamaicans.
The INS stipulates that each Jamaican laborer can work for just one employer, at one location, for a specified time, at a predetermined wage. The workers cannot negotiate for themselves nor are there any substantive grievance procedures. The Jamaicans are housed in enormous barracks, miles from any of the small agricultural towns in the area, surrounded by barbed wire fences and the Everglades’ treacherous channels.
Even though their wage is ostensibly set by the federal government, Jamaican cane cutters are paid whatever they can get. They work at the whim of the bossman, who takes his orders from the corporations. No visitors — not even relatives — can enter the “labor camps,” as they are called, and the workers can leave only with an authorization. Lawyers are routinely refused entry to the camps to see their clients, and American pastors are denied access to minister to members of their faiths.
The cane cutters accept all these conditions because, as one man said, “We are Jamaicans working in the U.S.” When a Jamaican doesn’t abide by one of the rules, he is “cashiered,” deported. As one cane cutter explained with deep bitterness, “It is better to be exploited than to lose the opportunity to come back next year.”
Due largely to an austerity program imposed by the International Monetary Fund and a U.S. effort in the mid- ’70s to destabilize the left-wing government of Michael Manley, it is almost impossible to get work in Jamaica these days. Increasingly, State Department officials worried about Prime Minister Manley’s friendship with his island neighbor, Cuba, and pressure from the United States threatens to wreck the Jamaican economy. The jobless rate stands at 30 percent; foreign capital is lacking, development virtually non-existent. The minimum wage, in places where there is one, is less than 60 cents an hour. In October, 1980, Edward Seaga, running on a conservative, capitalist platform, defeated Manley in national elections.
To come to America, applicants are screened by the Jamaican government and by representatives of the sugar companies. The list of workers who “want in” to the U.S. is always inexhaustible. In Florida, a cane cutter is theoretically guaranteed at least $3.79 an hour.
One cane cutter whose home is in St. Elizabeth’s parish in southwest Jamaica, lives with eight members of his family in one room. He has become demoralized by the recent downturn in Jamaica’s economy. Interviewed before the recent election, he said, “There is no work here. Everything has collapsed. The government doesn’t care about the small man. You see, if the man knows you are a ‘Labor’ [meaning you belong to the Jamaican Labor Party] then you are out of work. His only way out of this is to go to the U.S.A. for work.” But while the government has changed hands, the necessity of belonging to the ruling party will remain the same. Two decades of intermittent rule by both parties has shown this.
Fitzroy Small, a Kingston resident, has cut cane in Florida for several years; his wife and children depend entirely on that income. “These jobs are so important that in the winter of 1978 [during the riots in two Kingston slums over sharply rising prices and unemployment] members of one political party were killing those of the other to get a ‘ticket.’”
The ticket, also called the “card,” is a piece of paper issued by the Jamaican government entitling the bearer to enter the enormous pool of applicants for one of the U.S. cane jobs. A man chosen to work in the U.S. has the potential to earn several thousand dollars in a half-year — if all goes right — compared to Jamaica’s per capita income of $981 a year.
Each spring the tickets are distributed by the government to party officials. Probyn Aitken, Jamaica’s minister of labor in the Manley government, who describes the procedure as fair, says there is a “scarce benefit” in belonging to the ruling party. At the same time, he explained that each member of Parliament in the ruling party receives 10 tickets for every one that opposition members are allowed.
In many interviews, Jamaican cane cutters repeatedly told of having to bribe PNP officials with cash, imported liquors or promises of a percentage of their future U.S. earnings. Of 90 Jamaicans interviewed during Manley’s stewardship who had participated in the program, three-quarters claimed to be PNP members.
The Jamaicans who do wind up with tickets are then called to the Kingston and regional labor ministries for “selection.” From the mountains, the coastal plains and particularly from the capital, thousands and thousands of men converge on the ministry offices.
Often it will take all day to proceed the length of the line. But once inside and in front of the long tables where the American growers sit, things move more quickly; the scenario is all too familiar. “Have you ever cut cane before?” the Americans ask. Time and again, the Jamaicans answer, “Yes sir!” regardless of their work experience.
A tailor from the coastal town of Black River said, “I never did cut the cane before, but you have to tell them yes to get the job.” He got it. Cyril McPherson, who grew up in Kingston, explained, “I never cut cane, but I told them some lies.” He got a job. Another Kingston man added, “When the white man puts his thumb on your hand and asks what kind of work you do, of course you say farmwork even if you never worked in a field before.” He was also hired.
Finally, three to six months after having been screened, one out of three men receives a telegram informing him that he will be going to the United States the next day.
Late at night, the men pour into Kingston to be given last-minute injections of penicillin “for any disease they might have picked up,” explains Les Dean, an official at the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association [FFVA]. They are then flown to Miami or West Palm Beach via the cheap night charter flights.
At the U.S. airport, the Jamaicans are met by FFVA and Jamaican government representatives. The work contract is explained, as are the rules of deportment. Just before dawn the weary Jamaicans are loaded into buses for the two-hour trip to the sugar camps.
Men arriving at Moorehaven, Belle Glade and South Bay said they felt “terrified because everyone is separated.” One man added, “I was so alone. I didn’t know where any of my friends went.”
After arriving at the camps, the Jamaicans will be asked to work every day except for Christmas and New Year’s. The cane harvest runs from November until mid-April. Frequently, they will be kept cutting for 12 hours at a time, even if they should start throwing up or just saying they’re tired. There is no time off for the drenching rains or the winter freezes.
Cane cutting is among the most strenuous and dangerous types of work still performed by hand. The humidity and the soot is thick, the cane stalks unyielding, the long machete a potential weapon and the pace — astounding.
When a man cuts cane, there are three sounds he remembers. One of them is a heave, a heave from the toes and from the thighs and from the stomach and the shoulders and even inside the head. It comes enormously — and all at once — as the steel blade tears through the stalk, splintering the fibers and spilling the juices. Then immediately, there is another sound. A breath. A sigh. And then the third, an order. “Tighten up!” Fitzroy Small explained that in the fields he had to cut and stack a certain amount of cane each hour or risk being sent home. “They had a bicycle gauge,” he said. “If you don’t make the mark, they pull you out of the field and put you into the bus.”
Other Jamaicans told of how the companies altered their pay records to make it look like they were meeting federal wage requirements. Several alleged that the price of a row of cane would vary from man to man and from day to day based solely on the field supervisor’s discretion.
These allegations are hardly new to the U.S. government or to most workers in Belle Glade. In the mid-1970s, the federal government prosecuted the major Florida sugar corporations for altering pay records, purposely undercutting hours, arbitrarily setting wages, and willfully violating transportation safety statutes. Several years after the U.S. Congress passed a bill requiring farmworkers to be transported in buses, two Gulf & Western tractor trailers carrying over 100 Jamaican cane cutters and their machetes overturned near South Bay. The result: one dead, 86 seriously injured. The fine: $1,000.
While some of these illegalities have been resolved, the basic inequities and abuses continue, says Kathy Grannis, a Florida Rural Legal Services attorney who has represented the cane cutters. Repeatedly, Jamaicans said that if a worker makes a simple complaint or asks a question about anything from the condition of the toilet facilities to the deductions listed on his paycheck, he would be summarily fired and deported.
Stanley Myers has been coming to the United States for three decades under Department of Labor programs. He has worked in mattress factories, cherry and apple orchards, celery fields and the cane. He said the American growers “trick you all the time. They don’t want us to know anything. You are just supposed to work. We have no rights.”
Another cane cutter with eight children said, “They think Jamaicans are so bad off that they will do anything. I feel like a slave cutting cane. The Americans look at us like we’re not human beings.”
It is rare — almost unheard of — when a group of Jamaicans protest their dismissal. However, in January, 1979, 19 Jamaicans told Les Dean of FFVA that they wouldn’t leave without their back pay. Dean said that he explained to them that their money would be forwarded to Jamaica. The workers insisted that they have the cash. Without it, they said, they could not afford the ride from the Kingston airport. Dean simply left.
The group of Jamaicans immediately sought assistance from the police, who referred them to Florida Rural Legal Services. FRLS attorneys negotiated a small cash settlement, and a statement was signed by the FFVA guaranteeing that these men would not be barred from the selection process the following year.
The 19 men explained that this was the first time in their lives that they had stood up for their rights. They were pleased with the outcome, given the circumstances. In Jamaica four months after their deportation, however, they exhibited an odd mixture of pride and anguish. They were still proud, because as one of them said, “A right is a right. You have to stick up for your rights.”
At the same time, they said that they were worried about the possibility of being blacklisted, despite the agreement. One of the more experienced cutters said with an uneasy anger: “I am afraid that next year I will go into the selection and one of the cane men will say, ‘Oh, you are one of them. Sorry, come back next year.’”
None of the 19, in fact, even made it into the selection process for the 1980 season. Neither did any of them receive a ticket. No bribe could achieve a ticket, the 19 reported.
In Kingston, then-Labor Minister Aitken discussed the incident and other similar ones. He said, “These men don’t have to go. They’re not being invited. If they think they are being exploited they should stay at home.” Talking about the sugar growers, he added, “The chap who has cane ripening wants to get it to market when it’s ready, not a month later. The growers have a schedule; it’s a business.”
Many agricultural economists say that the use of Jamaican workers is only temporary, citing the histories of other immigrant groups that have arrived in the U.S., first to be exploited and later to be replaced by hungrier, more desperate nationalities. Even Secretary of Labor F. Ray Marshall said that whenever one group of workers gets its feet solidly on the ground and begins to improve its condition and bargaining position, the growers will turn to others who are more easily controlled.
Anthony Szczygiel, a New York attorney who works with migrant farmworkers, agrees that the Jamaicans are being exploited; but he says, “American growers will only stop using Jamaicans when they [the workers] get sophisticated enough to demand their rights.”
There is a flaw in these arguments, however. Jamaicans are not like other immigrant groups. For over three decades, they have been flown in and out of the U.S. with no gain in rights or claim to citizenship. However, Jamaica’s economy is at its worst point since independence from Great Britain in 1962.
Last winter I received the following letter from a Kingston cane cutter who had been fired and deported and, he says, blacklisted by the sugar growers. “I just can’t take this suffering anymore. It is so bad that I can’t explain it to you because there is no work out here. Most of the time, me and my family have to go to bed without anything to eat. My son is here and I can’t find a cent to send him to school. I don’t know where to go for a job. Some of the time I have to sit down and cry. Believe me, I would not tell you no lie. Why I has to cry is to know that I just have to stay at home. I’m not sick. I don’t have a homefoot.
Alma Blount is a free-lance writer and photographer living in North Carolina. (1981)
Steven Petrow is a graduate student in American history at the University of Califomia-Berkeley. He did the research for this article under an NEH Youth Grant. (1980)