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The Injustice on Our Plates

This week, as we celebrate our nation’s bounty and give thanks for the blessings in our lives, most of us probably won’t think very much about the people who do the backbreaking labor that puts food on our plates. We should.

This week, as we celebrate our nation’s bounty and give thanks for the blessings in our lives, most of us probably won’t think very much about the people who do the backbreaking labor that puts food on our plates. We should.

It’s easy to take for granted the cornucopia of vegetables, fruits, meats, nuts, grains and other staples that shows up on our grocery store shelves like clockwork. But we shouldn’t.

This Thanksgiving marks the 50th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s “Harvest of Shame,” the CBS documentary that shocked the conscience of the nation with its depiction of the hardships and abuses faced by migrant farmworkers.

Sadly, not much has changed.

What has changed is that our nation’s farmworkers are now overwhelmingly Latino – and the majority are undocumented immigrants. Slaughterhouses and other food-processing factories also rely heavily on these undocumented workers. Millions of them are women, and they are surely the most exploited laborers in our country.

Today, there are 4 million undocumented women living in the United States. They fill, for the most part, the lowest-paying jobs in our country. They usually earn minimum wage or less, get no sick or vacation days and receive no health insurance. They are not eligible for most government programs that benefit the poor. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center has just released a new study – Injustice on Our Plates – about the shameful but routine exploitation these women face. We conducted extensive interviews with scores of immigrant women working in the fields and factories to produce our food.

What we found was heartbreaking. Despite their obvious contributions to our economy, these immigrants exist in a shadow world in which they are subject to abuses that most of can’t imagine. They live at the margins of society – subsisting on poverty wages and enduring wage theft, rampant sexual harassment, dangerous working conditions and other indignities.

One woman, named Maria, told us about going to work in South Florida’s tomato fields, where she expected to earn 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes she picked. But when payday arrived, the boss said there was no money. There was nothing she could do about it.

Why? Another woman, Yazmin, explains. “It’s because of fear [that] we have to tolerate more,” she said. “Sometimes they take advantage because we don’t have papers. They mistreat us, and what can we do? Where would we go?”

Numerous women spoke of near-constant sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. Some had been brutally assaulted, but the women rarely report the crimes committed against them. They are too afraid of being fired and deported. “You have to let them humiliate you, harass the young girls just entering the field,” said one veteran farmworker. “You allow it or they fire you.”

Others told of being drenched in poisonous pesticides while working in the fields and of being disfigured by injuries while working on poultry-processing lines that run too fast.

The hardliners among us will say that these women don’t belong here and are getting what they deserve for violating our immigration laws. But it’s not that simple. We live in a complex world, where trade policies and decisions made on Wall Street can have devastating consequences for workers in other countries. Virtually all the women we interviewed for our report said they came to this country to escape devastating poverty and to help their families. It’s something we all would do if we were in the same situation.
The reality is that it would be impossible to deport the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in our country. Even if we could, the cost to our treasury and our economy would be far too great, not to mention the massive human violations that would inevitably occur.

Undocumented immigrants are performing vital work in our country. Their exploitation is a human rights tragedy and is undermining wages and working conditions for all workers. We should put a stop to it. The only realistic solution is for Congress to reform our immigration system and create a path to citizenship so these workers can emerge from the shadows.

It’s something we should consider as we eat our holiday meals. We shouldn’t let another 50 years pass before we address the problem.