This past summer, the Econo Lodge off Interstate 75 in Tifton, Georgia, where we and other watermelon harvesters from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) have stayed on and off since 1997, was eerily quiet. Gone were the sweat-soaked shoes piled outside motel rooms, and gone were the workers hanging out during their evening downtime, chatting casually or talking to their families on pay-as-you-go cellphones. In their place, a phone card salesman at the hotel’s front desk told anyone who would listen that his sales had dropped by at least 50 percent this year.
It was mid-June, and we were in town for the watermelon harvest, but we might as well have walked into a ghost town, thanks to Georgia’s recently signed Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act, otherwise known as House Bill 87. And thanks to HB 87, a copycat law of Arizona’s infamous SB 1070, millions of pounds of watermelons were left to rot in the fields this summer—along with peaches, blackberries and cucumbers—as many of the most dependable and experienced farmworkers steered clear of Georgia and headed north for friendlier states, prompting an epic farm labor shortage in Georgia and desperate howls from its planters.
A similar story is unfolding in neighboring Alabama, where a federal judge recently upheld most provisions of an even more draconian bill, championed by Governor Robert Bentley as “the strongest immigration law in the country.” The ruling spurred frantic midnight evacuations, as immigrants fled rural towns across the state, leaving a trail of abandoned homes and businesses. Alabama tomato growers, among others, have decried the law’s swift and deleterious impact on the farm labor market.
The Alabama law makes it a crime for immigrants to not carry proper documents and forces public schools to determine students’ legal status. It also broadens the power of local police to investigate people’s immigration status during routine stops. In Georgia similar provisions were designed to target people suspected of a crime, including simple traffic violations, and who cannot produce proper identification.
Under both states’ laws, starting next year, employers will be required to use the federal E-Verify system—an online tool provided by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration—to determine their employees’ legal status. In Georgia any worker who uses false documents to get a job could face up to fifteen years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Businesses that don’t comply risk losing their license.
But states considering similar legislation should look at what happened this past summer in Georgia as a cautionary tale. Even before it took effect, in July, Georgia’s harsh new law prompted workers to avoid the state just as its summer crops were coming ripe. Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, described it as “the equivalent of a giant scarecrow in the middle of a cornfield.” This continued even as its most controversial provisions—including a section allowing police to investigate the immigration status of people who have not been arrested—were put on hold by a federal judge while a lawsuit challenging the bill’s constitutionality made its way through court. Replacement workers proved scarce, and those locals who showed up for duty lacked the hard-earned skills for the job. The result: an estimated $300 million in lost crops, with potential losses of
$1 billion for the season for the state’s agricultural sector.
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How did Georgia come to suffer such a painful, self-inflicted wound? The proximate cause is the intoxicating power of spreading anti-immigrant sentiment, fanned by incendiary Tea Party–style politics, which have found fertile ground throughout much of the South. HB 87 played an important role in Georgia’s gubernatorial election and was strongly supported by the Republican candidate, Nathan Deal; as Georgia’s new governor, he proudly signed HB 87 into law. Many Georgia farmers supported the law as well. Sixth-generation blackberry farmer Gary Paulk was chair of Deal’s gubernatorial campaign in Irwin County, next door to Tifton. He told Time magazine in June that he stood to lose $250,000 for the summer because of the labor shortage, adding, with no apparent self-awareness, that he finds the law “appalling, because they didn’t think through the implications, at the farm level.”
But like most things in the South, the roots of this particular problem run deep, into a long regional history of undervaluing agricultural labor. Georgia’s leaders (and much of its agricultural industry) were confident that replacement workers could be hired without a hiccup in the harvest. This particular confederacy of dunces believed their own rhetoric and are now paying the price. And from the look of things, it really hurts when you shoot yourself in the foot.
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Georgia is the third-largest US producer of watermelons, behind Florida and Texas. Cordele, a town about half an hour north of Tifton, lays unofficial claim to the title Watermelon Capital of the World.
Until recently, African-American farmworkers, local and out-of-state, harvested Georgia’s melons. But as the industry grew and production soared in the second part of the last century, harvesting crews were increasingly drawn from Florida, where year-round farmworkers spend the winter months picking citrus and tomatoes in the south of the state, then travel north to follow the crops, beginning with melons, cucumbers and peaches in south Georgia.
These Florida crews were experienced workers—“gators” in field parlance—many of whom learned the trade from family members. Florida watermelon crews were famously proud of their unrivaled skills, and though the demographics of crews working Georgia’s fields shifted steadily away from African-Americans toward Latinos in the 1990s, that same pride, born of the grueling, unforgiving nature of the work, was passed on. “Yo soy sandillero“—I am a watermelon worker (sandía is Spanish for watermelon)—may have largely replaced “I’m a gator,” but the honor of the title is the same.
That’s because, despite the attitudes of the region’s farmers, watermelon harvesting is a skilled trade. Workers must learn the complex interplay of five or six different signs that indicate when a melon is ripe and ready for harvest—or else get fired without recourse for cutting green melons. They must learn to throw and catch twenty- to thirty-pound oblong fruits with just the right arc, often keeping pace on foot with the moving field truck. Thousands of times a day they must pitch melons to another worker up to ten feet away without bruising the fruit or hurting themselves or their co-workers. They must also accurately estimate the weight of melons flying by at the rate of two or three per second on a fast-moving conveyor belt or risk having a load rejected for mis-sized melons—another fireable offense.
But perhaps the most important skill watermelon workers must develop is an almost Herculean endurance. They work up to sixteen hours a day under a hot summer sun, in temperatures that often climb well over 100 degrees, without stopping for much longer than it takes to catch their breath and drink much-needed water. Then they wake up before dawn the next day and do it all over again. It is not uncommon for workers to lose five to seven pounds of water weight in a single day and to cramp up at night, their hamstrings and hands in spasms from painful seizures caused by the constant dehydration. Newer workers are often stalked in their sleep by the demands of the job, their arms jumping to catch imagined melons hurtling toward them.
Edgerrin James, the four-time all-pro running back who played for the Indianapolis Colts, was raised in Immokalee, Florida, in a family of watermelon workers. He credits growing up in the fields with preparing him for the rigors of football at the University of Miami. “I never lifted a weight in my life,” he told ESPN magazine. “I was hardened in every way.”
With such hardened workers largely absent from Georgia this year, a motley crew of locals (and some professionals) took their place. Crew leaders struggled mightily to fill the gaps in the workforce and salvage what they could from the harvest. We worked alongside the locals, packing melons into eighteen-wheelers on a farm ten miles outside Tifton. At the nearby conveyor belt, where melons are packed into store-ready cardboard bins, most of the workers were local teenagers, some as young as 13, with a sprinkling of older residents. None of them had more than a few days’ experience.
The consequences were plain to see. The replacement workers, unable to distinguish the different sizes, packed melons indiscriminately into bins, which constantly needed reshuffling. At one point a supervisor grew so vexed by the sizing problems that he paced the line waving a small melon that should have been culled, yelling repeatedly in his broken Spanish, “Chiquita! chiquita!“—forgetting for a moment that the workers staring back at him were local native English-speakers too. New workers threw melons every which way, making the job a lot more painful and causing truckloads of bruised and broken melons to be hauled away. Every day, within just a few hours, the packinghouse was a postapocalyptic scene of shattered melons, with clouds of bees swarming around the sugary piles.
In the end, the local youth who had decided to dabble in the harvesting weren’t motivated to stick around for $8 an hour once they realized how tough the job was. The resulting carousel of available workers—with attitudes ill-suited for the task—presented a no-win scenario for our inexperienced supervisor.
Meanwhile field crews, short the usual complement of members, struggled to do the work of five or six men with crews of four. The extra effort left many drained by midday, causing a constant reshuffling of the shrinking crews. Compounding the problem, the hot sun and drought had caused crops to ripen much faster than usual. In an effort to keep up with the harvest, pinteros—unlicensed smaller crews, usually limited to buying and selling loads of melons at local markets—were drafted to harvest and pack directly on the farm. This in turn led to a host of other labor problems: pintero bosses are even less professional than the notoriously harsh and abusive licensed crew leaders.
* * *
If there is a lesson to be learned from the mess in Georgia, beyond the counterproductivity of anti-immigrant laws, it should be that a solution exists to the national immigration crisis and to decades of exploited farm labor. It can be summed up in two words: reward work.
If the root of the problem is the traditional undervaluation of agricultural labor—from chattel slavery to convict lease and sharecropping to the present-day migrant farm-labor system—then the solution should lie in recognizing labor’s true value and rewarding it accordingly. One truly meaningful—and long overdue—way to do this is to provide a rational path to legal residency for the countless undocumented immigrants whose discounted labor has fueled our economy for nearly two decades.
Unfortunately, there are those who would exploit Georgia’s labor shortage to deepen the degradation of this country’s immigrant farmworkers, not alleviate it. Farm labor shortages, real or perceived, have traditionally paved the way for harsh “guest-worker” legislation, from the infamous bracero program to the present-day H-2A system, which limits farmworkers’ freedom by making it impossible to change employers, no matter the reason. The resulting coercive relationship has led to horrific farm labor abuses. With so much power concentrated in employers’ hands, it’s no surprise that so many recent prosecutions by the Justice Department for modern-day slavery and forced labor have involved guest workers. Yet efforts are already under way in Congress to pass guest-worker bills that contain even fewer protections and even lower wages for guest workers. Rewarding work means also valuing the work of immigrants brought to the United States on guest-worker visas. They must be afforded the protections of US-born workers and, most important, allowed portability, so they can move from one job to another and are no longer tied to the employer who petitioned for them.
Ultimately a real solution must also mean paying farmworkers wages that reflect the value of their labor. Farmwork is the worst combination of subpoverty wages; dangerous, backbreaking work; and near-total absence of labor protections or benefits. Few aspire to do farmwork, as Georgia’s growers just found out the hard way. But the good news is, although most produce growers operate on razor-thin margins, the trillion-dollar food industry has the resources to raise wages dramatically and virtually overnight. Massive consolidated retail purchasers—companies like Walmart, Kroger, Publix and Trader Joe’s—could, for as little as a penny per pound in the case of tomatoes, raise wages by up to 70 percent. (The CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food is one practical program that is developing such an industrywide solution.) And even if retailers passed the price increase on to consumers, who would notice if tomatoes went from $2.93 to $2.94 per pound? Across all crops, according to a recent analysis, a 40 percent farmworker wage increase would require the average American household to spend only $15 more per year on fruits and vegetables. That’s a drop in the bucket, given that an average household’s annual food budget is $6,400. These pennies add up for farmworkers, however, and would help transform their job from one of the country’s worst to one where they could take their first step out of poverty and toward a living wage.
Fair wages and dignified working conditions could end crippling labor shortages in the agricultural industry by giving workers like those who tried and gave up on watermelon harvesting this summer an incentive to stick it out. If Georgia has taught us anything, it should be that farmworkers as well as immigrants are simply too valuable to this country for us to continue treating them as a permanent underclass.