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Thank you, Stephen Colbert

Chris Rhodenbaugh | Friday, October 1, 2010

On Friday, Stephen Colbert, comedian and host of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” appeared before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration to give his testimony on being a farm worker for a day.

Colbert, who attended the hearing in character, has been criticized by Republicans and some Democrats for wasting the time and money of U.S. taxpayers. This assertion rings hollow because a hearing on an issue Americans love to ignore, farm workers’ rights and well being, became the news story of the day.

Colbert participated in the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) “take our jobs” challenge, taking a farm worker’s job for a day to experience the work that Americans have proved they are unwilling to do. Tired of being discriminated against and looked down upon for “taking” American jobs, the United Farm Workers, a union based in California and located in nine other states, made up of US citizens, as well as documented and undocumented workers came up with the idea to give any US citizen the opportunity to become a farm worker. They launched the website takeourjobs.org and to this day have received more than three million hits, about 8,600 interested U.S. citizens, but only seven continue to work in the field at this time.

The results of the UFW experiment are far from surprising because labor on U.S. farms in picking fruits and vegetables is some of the most challenging work in the world today. I saw the struggles and hardships of farm workers personally when I attended the Center for Social Concern’s Migrant Worker Seminar in Immokalee, Fla., last spring. What I witnessed in Immokalee has left a deep impression on my view of immigrants and migrant workers in the United States.

In Immokalee, workers started their day before sunrise at 4:00 or 4:30 a.m. to head to the pick-up area. There they would line up and farm employees would survey them one by one allowing them on the buses. Even though workers scrape by without the ability to save money, the workers do not even have the right to knowing if they will get work every day. Tomato pickers in Immokalee work about 10 hours a day, seven days a week, in scorching heat, usually close to 100 degrees, with their backs bent over loading 32-pound buckets of tomatoes worth 50 cents a bucket. For a tomato picker in Florida to make minimum wage he or she would have to pick 2.25 tons of tomatoes, or 4,500 pounds, in one day. Today, laws protecting farm workers vary severely between the states, with Florida being one of the worst, because the federal government has been absent since the 1930s when Southern Democrats worked hard to keep labor protections from applying to the heavily African-American farm worker population.

Not only are workers abused in the fields, but also they find themselves victimized in housing and services as well. Without adequate legal protection, workers are exploited in every aspect of their lives by relentless market forces. Because migrant workers move with the growing seasons and are usually undocumented, they are often prohibited from renting traditional apartments. This means they are forced to pay exorbitant above market rates for short-term leases on unkempt and broken down apartments or houses. The same goes for when they use services to send money home to their families in Latin America.

The catastrophic results of a lack of rights extend beyond unjust working and living conditions, and the inability to save money or get consistent work for economic security. Human slavery is a reality in the lives of migrant workers in the United States. Since 1997, seven slavery cases have been successfully prosecuted by the U.S. government in the state of Florida. More than 1,000 migrant workers have been freed from forced work operations as a result of these trials. To this day I am unable to forget reading the advisories posted around the homeless shelter where the ND group stayed in Immokalee that listed the warning signs that someone a worker knew might be enslaved and what could be done about it. That these injustices are happening just 30 miles from one of the wealthiest cities in Florida, Naples, and that these working conditions supply grocery stores and restaurants in South Bend and the majority of the east coast with tomatoes and other crops is a stain on the integrity of the United States that must be removed.

The solution to this problem should come from two angles, empowering consumers with a choice to buy ethically grown and picked food and extending basic rights to farm workers in the United States. Growers could be ethically certified, much like they can be certified organic today. Also, it is the responsibility of Federal legislators to break the status quo of workers having rights only in a select group of states. The right to work legally by increasing the amount of temporary worker visas to meet demand for labor, minimum wage law, safe working conditions, minimum hours of work per day, and the right to organize must be extended to farm workers in every state.

Take a moment today to think about where your food came from, and commit to working towards a future when consumers know if they are eating ethically produced food, and farm workers, the backbone of the U.S. agricultural industry, are protected from exploitation by law in all 50 states.

Chris Rhodenbaugh is a senior

political science major and editor of www.LeftysLastCry.com, Notre Dame’s Progressive Headquarters. He can be contacted at crhodenb@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.