Sweet potatoes make a bitter harvest for farm workers (Double participation)

Published November 29, 2014 by djlwsu
Labor conditions in the fields growing a favorite Thanksgiving offering have ‘stagnated or gotten worse’ in recent years

The sweet potato harvest starts in mid-September and can extend as late as mid-November. Thousands of agricultural laborers trudge through the fields, filling buckets with the tubers and hauling them back to waiting trucks. Sometimes they work as few as five hours a day; sometimes, as many as 12. One full bucket earns a worker about  $0.40 or $0.50. But the work — crouch to fill the bucket, run it back to the truck, repeat over and over until the day is done — is backbreaking.

Welcome to North Carolina, where the state vegetable is the sweet potato and the state minimum wage is $7.25. Nearly half of the United States’ crop hails from here, especially the coastal plain region. Any given Thanksgiving feast is likely to include at least a portion of that crop, harvested by low-wage workers under grueling conditions.

“Sweet potatoes are definitely one of the biggest labor-intensive crops in the state, second probably only to tobacco,” Justin Flores, vice president of the agricultural workers’ union FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Committee), told Al Jazeera America.

Like tobacco pickers, sweet potato harvesters often don’t receive a standard hourly wage. Instead they’re paid a piece rate, meaning compensation is based on the volume they’re able to haul each day. The law says their hourly pay can never dip below the legal minimum wage, but employers don’t always comply, said Flores.

“In sweet potatoes, you get a lot of the folks who are working for the bucket,” Flores said. “And for big chunks of the season, they’re making less than minimum wage. It really depends on the yield of the farm you’re working at.”

Exact data on wages can be hard to come by, given the casual, seasonal nature of the work and the fact that many agricultural laborers are undocumented immigrants. The most comprehensive figures in recent years were probably those from the U.S. Labor Department’s 2005 National Agricultural Workers Survey, based on 6,472 farm worker interviews conducted between October 2000 and September 2002. The survey found agricultural workers’ average income to be somewhere between $10,000 and $12,499 per year.

And low wages might not be the worst of it. Last month, the Urban Institute, a public policy think tank, released a major study on labor trafficking in the U.S. that found agriculture to be among the top industries in which trafficking occurs. Many of those trafficked workers are children.

2013 survey of North Carolina agriculture workers found that roughly 25 percent “reported ever experiencing a situation that may constitute trafficking.” For example, the researchers said they heard reports of “workers who reported not being able to leave the camp, being paid less than expected, and appearing fearful.”

Many of the North Carolina farm workers who spend their autumns harvesting sweet potatoes wind up picking tobacco over the summer. Thousands of those tobacco pickers work on farms that have contracts with the tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds, and FLOC is currently attempting to push the company into guaranteeing a baseline for labor standards on all of those farms.

North Carolina tobacco travels around the world, including to the United Kingdom. As a result, FLOC’s campaign has attracted the support of two Labour members of the UK’s parliament, who earlier this month filed a report on labor conditions in North Carolina tobacco fields. The report, titled “A Smokescreen for Slavery,” was based on the testimony of FLOC President Baldemar Valesquez and the MPs’ own visit to the U.S.

“We get pesticidies sprayed near us when we work and we don’t know what they are,” one agricultural worker told the MPs, according to the report. “This season, I got sick from the chemicals and one day I was sick in the bathroom and the supervisor came and told me I had to get back to work. When I couldn’t, he told me he didn’t need me anymore and that was my last day working there.”

Documenting the plight of American agricultural workers has been something of a Thanksgiving tradition ever since 1960, when CBS first aired “Harvest of Shame,” a special report featuring the legendary newscaster Edward R. Murrow.

“One farmer looked at this and said, ‘We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them,’” Murrow said at the beginning of the report, over scenes of migrant laborers headed to work.

Bruce Goldstein, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Farmworker Justice, said there has been some substantial progress in the half-century since that report aired — but not enough.

“Conditions for most farmworkers are still pretty poor,” he said. “So the degree of improvement since 1960 is disappointing.”

Goldstein singled out U.S. immigration policy as one major factor that continues to suppress labor standards in the agricultural industry, because the undocumented workforce is particularly vulnerable to abuse.

“Conditions have either stagnated or gotten worse over the past few years because of the broken immigration system,” he said. In his eyes, the harvest of shame continues.


6 comments on “ Sweet potatoes make a bitter harvest for farm workers (Double participation)

  • This post upsets me because it shows just how little Americans think about who is involved in getting food from the fields to their plates. Like most Americans, I rarely think about what kind of labor intensive work goes into the harvesting of the fruits and vegetables that I eat on a regular basis. But this article has made me decide to think about it more often. This is because I am surprised at how badly these workers are treated. When someone got sick because of their close proximity to pesticides and could no longer work for just one day, they were fired. That is completely ridiculous and should never happen. I was also shocked to hear that when interviewed, a man said that they don’t buy slaves anymore, but instead they merely rent them. Nobody in this day and age should be calling their employees slaves. Two things this article has made me grateful for though is that I do not eat sweet potatoes and I do not smoke tobacco so I am not contributing to the mistreatment of the workers in North Carolina.


  • It is unbelievable to think that our country continues to allow and support what has evolved into what seems modern day American slavery. The section of the article discussing the particular farmer who seemed fearful to leave really got to me. Even if this individual is not bound to the land he or she works on, with such low pay standards how can society expect them to move up in the work force. What I think the real issue is the fact most Americans would like to casually ignore these accusations against the agriculture industry because it is simply an inconvenience to our society. Another problem that will continue to be unsolved due to our blind ignorance. The farmer who was quoted saying “We use to own our Slaves, now we just rent them,” should be enough evidence of corruption to blow this whole scandal out of the water but for some reason the problem continues. This type of situation reminds me of the Florida Tomato industry.


  • It amazes me that there is still things like this happening today in the world. Taking advantage of vulnerable Americans is something that should not be tolerated especially in the U.S where slavery is supposed to be abolished. The quote regarding renting slaves really stood out to me because it shows that the farmers know that they are treating their own workers poorly and are probably making a lot more money as a result of it. Is up to us to raise awareness regarding the maltreatment of workers and to put pressure on the farming community to put more strict rules in place regarding worker treatment. It shouldn’t take laws to make the farmers realize that what they are doing is wrong and it needs to stop. Holding farmers more accountable will help the situations of these workers and improve their lives significantly.


  • the article made me think that there is still slavery going on around the world, and this is one of the case. The corporates taking advantage of the vulnerable Americans that has no power, and no choice to work for them. Also the statement they used were making me upset, they stated that “We use to own our Slaves, now we just rent them,” this just made me think about how this world is still going through a different type of slavery that is justified by the so called law, that protects the riches but harsh for the people who don’t have the ability to fight back. i really wish that their would be some changes to these conditions.


  • I’m somewhat-familiar with this subject. I was fortunate to be very young at the time, unlike my mother, father, older brother, and sister, they had to do the back-breaking work of picking apples back in Yakima. I have many relatives who worked (now retired or found a different job) and still work (kids young as 9 years old to uncles is their late 50’s). The thing about many of the men and women in the older generations is that it was the only source of work for them, being undocumented workers from Mexico, it was very rare or difficult for an immigrant to obtain work in an office or somewhere else. This was also money paid under the table as well so they were able to avoid the IRS and other ways that would reveal their illegality. The wages I was told were good enough to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. The argument I’ve heard nowadays about wages for fruit pickers is that it should remain how it is, hard workers are paid right whereas hourly wage workers are often lazy. That’s what I was told by my father.


  • After reading articles like this i think that it is crazy that things like this are still happening in our country and it seems like the government doesn’t care to do anything about it. We need more people like Bruce to speak out about these topics to bring awareness. Seems like only people who are known are the ones who get listened to. For example in the video we watched in class about the Florida tomato pickers. i wonder if the person who was head of the organization wasn’t Eva Langoria would they still have made the progress of increasing the workers salary. It is horrible that workers have to work in these conditions and treated like modern day slaves almost and can’t say anything about it because they might be undocumented or at risk of losing their jobs. I can’t help but think of the saying, “out of sight out of mind” when reading articles like these. Most people don’t know what is going on and awareness needs to be brought to people attention so that we can make a difference.


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