Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thoughts for Thanksgiving: 50 Years Since Harvest of Shame

The day after Thanksgiving in 1960, the documentary Harvest of Shame, a report by Edward Murrow about the situation facing agricultural workers, was aired. 50 years later, agricultural workers in the U.S. still struggle with many of the problems exposed by this film: poverty wages, sub-standard housing, untreated injuries, children being kept out of school, lack of labor regulations and/or enforcement, long, sometimes dangerous journeys to find work, among many others. I kept thinking as I watched the documentary, how many of the quotes in this film could we simply transpire to a modern documentary on agricultural labor?

"We used to own our slaves, now we just rent them."

"But a migrant was just a person who worked on a farm to me."

The response of the employer, who claimed that farmworkers are the happiest race of people in the world. "They just love this."

"They have no voice in the legislative halls. They certainly have no voice in Congress. And their employers do have a voice. Their employers are highly organized, and make their wants and terms and conditions known to our legislators."

We still cling to a romantic view of farm life - the one of commercials of glistening fruit and fields waving back and forth with the wind. The happy farmer- gloved and smeared with dirt. While there is much pride in the act of growing food and nourishing people, the reality is that the problems exposed in this film today are compounded by the industrial agricultural system that has exploded since 1960.

Farms are larger and must answer to the demands of consumers of supermarkets and fast food chains and the system relies on cheap labor. People are no longer connected to the food they eat. Think about the Thanksgiving meal you enjoyed today - do you know the origin of your ingredients or under what conditions the food was brought to your table? It is very likely migrant or immigrant farm labor helped make that Thanksgiving meal happen.

Harvest of Shame is, unfortunately, not far from today's reality in the fields. The demographics of farmworkers might be different, but slavery, abuse and poverty are still common. And just as there are many relevant quotes to be pulled from Harvest of Shame, there are also relevant questions that we should still be asking ourselves:

"Is it possible that we think too much in terms of charity, in terms of Thanksgiving Day baskets, in terms of Christmas baskets, and not in terms enough of eliminating poverty?"

"Must the 2 to 3 million migrants who help feed their fellow Americans work, travel and live under conditions that wrong the dignity of man?"

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