I had the privilege of reading John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath” for an English class last semester and was left feeling naively comforted by the idea that the types of exploitation, prejudice and abuse that the novel’s displaced Oklahomans endured could not possibly occur in America today. As jaded as I am from eight years of the Bush administration, I still have a bit of that ingrained American patriotism that makes it difficult to imagine this country as anything but the home of ‘the free and the brave.”

It wasn’t until my Spanish professor assigned a research paper last week on ‘los trabajadores migratorios” migrant workers that I realized the shocking practices depicted in Steinbeck’s famous novel are alive and well today and affecting an ‘invisible population” of nearly three million agricultural workers. If you’re not familiar with the book, just a brief sampling of the types of practices I’m talking about include physical abuse, unlivable wages, overcharging for housing and food and a myriad of other blatant exploitations.

Today’s migrant workers are not ‘okies” like the ones in ‘The Grapes of Wrath,” but immigrants often undocumented from Mexico and other Latin-American countries. They are paid small change (around 45 cents) for each basket they can fill with whatever fruit, vegetable or nut they are picking and often are blatantly overcharged for deplorable nearby housing. These people live without health care, without access to education and, due to their lack of legal status or simply their lack of knowledge of the English language, without any means of fighting these conditions.

In some extreme cases, as reported by Gourmet Magazine this month in their ‘Politics of the Plate” feature, migrant workers actually end up in virtual slavery charged so highly and unjustly by farm owners for housing, food, running water and other necessities, they become permanently indebted and forced by the threat of physical abuse to labor in the fields without any compensation. Since 1997, there have been over 1,000 men and women freed from slavery by the police. That doesn’t even begin to cover those who have not been freed.

Whatever your feelings on illegal immigration, it should be universal that these types of human rights violations are not acceptable in a country that prides itself on being a place of personal freedom or anywhere, for that matter. Slavery and unjust work conditions should be combated at all costs, and the first step is simply awareness. This population of workers should not remain invisible and ignored.

Here at UR, we can open up this topic via academic discussion and cooperation and collaboration with organizations like the Cornell University Farmworker Program or the National Center for Farmworker Health, both of which are dedicated to improving the conditions under which migrant laborers work.

Secondly, the University should examine the sources of its produce and determine whether unjust practices were used in obtaining our food. Some supermarkets and food suppliers, including Whole Foods, have signed on to the Campaign for Fair Food, by agreeing to pay one cent more per pound of tomatoes often the difference between poverty and a living wage for the pickers. While this campaign does not extend to other fruits and vegetables, it would be a good start to making a statement that UR does not support slavery and injustice.

Healy is a member of
the class of 2011.

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