By Reid Maki, Coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition and Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards
America’s farmworkers are mostly invisible these days. The men, women, and children who pick our fruit and vegetables go largely ignored by the public and Congress, which has failed to update the Fair Labor Standards Act leaving farmworkers mostly unprotected from workplace abuses. This September, however, two celebrities—Eva Longoria and Stephen Colbert—traveled to Capitol Hill in an effort to shine a much-needed spotlight on the plight of farmworkers.
On September 15, Longoria, a cast member from the television hit “Desperate Housewives,” appeared at an informal briefing in the Rayburn House Office Building to promote “The Harvest”, a documentary she is producing about child labor in agriculture. Longoria and filmmaker Robin Romano showed clips of child workers featured in the film, which will premier at the Sundance Film Festival. The Harvest follows kids as they migrate and perform back-breaking work that many adults will not do because it is too hard and the pay is too low.
Despite being “a long time advocate for farmworkers,” Longoria said she was unaware that hundreds of thousands of children toiled in America’s fields because of loopholes in our country’s child labor laws. She noted that the educational impact on farmworker kids is profound: two out of three migrant students do not graduate high school. The high drop out rate, she added, contributes to a cycle of poverty that grips the farmworker community. Children are faced with the dilemma of providing needed family income or pursuing their educational needs. “No child should have to make that decision,” Longoria said, urging the briefing attendees to support H.R. 3564, the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment or CARE, legislation that would extend labor protections to farmworker kids.
The bill’s author, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), told attendees that passing CARE “would be a great step forward in protecting children.”
On September 24th, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship & Border Security’s hearing on “Protecting America’s Harvest,” addressed attempts to ensure that there are enough workers to harvest crops. TV humorist Stephen Colbert was one of the “expert” witnesses based on his recent experience as a farmworker. His testimony was pure satire that would have made H.L. Mencken smile: “Congresswoman Lofgren has asked me to share my vast experience spending one day as a migrant farmworker.”
“I’m happy to use my celebrity to draw attention to this important, complicated issue and I certainly hope that my star power can bump this hearing all the way up to CSPAN 1,” Colbert told a crowded hearing room.
“As you’ve heard this morning, America’s farms are far too dependent upon immigrant labor to pick its fruits and vegetables. Now, the obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables. And if you look at recent obesity statistics you can see that many Americans have already started.”
“I reject this idea that farm work is among the semi-mythical jobs that Americans won’t do…Really, no Americans? I did, as part of my ongoing series—“Stephen Colbert’s Fall Back Position” — where I try other jobs and realize that mine is way better. I participated in the UFW’s “Take Our Jobs” campaign. One of only 16 people in Americans to take up the challenge, although that number may increase in the near future as I understand many democrats may be looking for work come November,” quipped Colbert.
“I’ll admit I started my work day with preconceived notions of migrant labor, but after working with these men and women, picking beans, packing corn for hours on end, side by side in the unforgiving sun, I’d have to say—and I do mean this sincerely—please don’t make me do this again. It is really, really hard.”
“For one thing, when you’re picking beans you have to spend all day bending over. It turns out—and I did not know this— most soil is at ground level. If we can put a man on the moon why can’t we make the earth waist high?” asked Colbert in exaggerated mock pain.
The subcommittee also heard testimony from Arturo Rodriguez, the president of the United Farm Workers, who told members of Congress that “most of the food on your table has been harvested and cared for by unauthorized workers.”
“There’s another indisputable fact. The life of a U.S. farmworker in 2010 is not an easy one: most farmworkers live in poverty, endure poor working conditions, and receive no government assistance,” said Rodriguez.
“Undocumented farmworkers take jobs that other Americans won’t do, for pay that other Americans won’t accept, and under conditions other American won’t tolerate,” said Rodriguez, who urged Congress to support the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, or “AgJOBS” bill, which would allow undocumented farmworkers already here in the U.S. to earn legal status by continuing to work in agriculture. “It is time to acknowledge the dignity of the current farm labor workforce and ensure the safety and abundance of America’s food supply by passing the AgJOBS bill. A failure to do so would be both a human and economic tragedy,” said Rodriguez.
Congress should take action, Colbert suggested. “This brief experience gave me some small understanding of why so few Americans are clamoring to begin a career as seasonal migrant field worker. So what’s the answer?” he asked. “I’m a free market guy. Normally I would leave this to the invisible hand of the market but the invisible hand of the market has already moved over 84,000 acres of production and over 22,000 farm jobs to Mexico and shut down over a million acres of U.S. farm land due to lack available labor because apparently even the invisible hand doesn’t want to pick beans.”
“Maybe this AgJOBS bill would help. I don’t know. Like most members of Congress I haven’t read it,” quipped Colbert, who suggested that offering more visas to immigrant laborers might help. “This improved legal status might allow immigrants recourse if they are abused.”
“It just stands to reason to me,” explained Colbert, “that if your coworker can’t be exploited then you’re less likely to be exploited yourself, and that itself might improve pay and working conditions on these farms and eventually Americans may consider taking these jobs again.”
“The point is we have to do something, because I am not going back out there,” said a horrified Colbert. “At this point, I break into a cold sweat at the sight of a salad bar.”
Colbert couldn’t help giving Congress one last tweak as he ended his testimony: “I trust that following my testimony both sides will work together on this issue in the best interest of the American people as you always do.” The packed hearing room laughed loudly at Colbert’s reference to the increasing lack of bipartisanship in the current Congress.
Not everyone seemed amused by having a humorist on a congressional panel. The Subcommittee’s ranking minority member Steve King (R-Iowa) sat unsmiling through the satiric Colbert testimony and during questioning suggested that film footage of Colbert working on a farm was “staged.” King later said it was insulting to suggest that American workers do not want to do farm work.
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the chair of the full Judiciary Committee, suggested that Colbert leave the hearing during the Q and A so that members could get down to business. He was politely “overruled” by Subcommittee chair Zoe Lofgren (D- Calif.), who said that Americans are interested in Colbert’s views.
Subcommittee members asked Colbert questions about the conditions he encountered in his brief time in the fields. “It was very hot,” said Colbert. “It was hotter than I like to be….It’s not a job I want to do and not a lot of people took Mr. Rodriguez up on his offer….[statistics] seems to say that Americans don’t want to take these jobs, but I don’t want to say definitively that they won’t.
Colbert turned a bit serious when Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) asked him why he chose to take a stand on the working conditions endured by farmworkers when there are so many issues to weigh in on. “I like talking about people who don’t have any power and this seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States—our migrant workers who come and do our work but who don’t have any rights…Yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. That’s an interesting contradiction to me.”
View all of Colbert’s testimony on YouTube here and here.