The Invisible Harvest

You've seen these images before. In Steinbeck novels, Dust Bowl documentaries, Dorothea Lange photographs. School buses rattling through the late afternoon heat, kicking up barn-sized clouds of dust as they discharge their cargoes. Men with T-shirts slung over tired shoulders and jeans stained black with dirt and sweat. Women wearing dirty baseball caps over braided hair. Children who should be in school, not working 12-hour days stooping down to harvest tobacco leaves.

Some of the men wear the badges of their home countries: shirts with Puerto Rican flags, Virgin of Guadalupe pendants. They smile and say hola and ¿como esta? as they walk to the carpools that will take them on from here. Few stop to talk, however. As one worker puts it, they've been up since 5:30 in the morning: All they can think about is going home and collapsing.

Vans are the vehicles of choice — not family-style minivans, but Dodge Rams and Chevy Mark IIIs with license plates from Tennessee and Florida. Many look like they've been running for the last two decades on spit and twine left over from the Joad family pickup. An hour later, some of the same vans are parked in back alleys behind triple-decker tenements or crumbling Victorians with missing windows in the poorest neighborhoods in the state. Others pull up to bunkhouses that look like something from the set of a prison movie, the rows of identical bunks strung with trash bags to block out the overhead light.

This isn't the Dust Bowl landscape of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, or even the modern-day fields of California or North Carolina. Most of these workers have driven or flown thousands of miles to pick tobacco leaves in Massachusetts. They are among the tens of thousands of migrants who come to New England every year to pick our crops.

Chances are, the blueberries you sprinkled on your morning cereal were harvested by a Mexican in central Maine. The crisp apple you bought at the local farm stand was picked by a Jamaican “guestworker” just west of Boston. The outer roll of the stogie you smoked at a cigar bar was harvested by a Puerto Rican outside Springfield. Other workers have come from Florida, North Carolina, Guatemala, and El Salvador to harvest Christmas trees in Connecticut and strawberries in New Hampshire and to replant trees for lumber in far northern Maine.

The harvest requires backbreaking, repetitive labor, and goes on for as many hours a day and as many days a week as the crops demand. Nor have conditions changed much since Steinbeck's day. Workers sometimes lack simple amenities like portable toilets and drinking water in the fields. Housing is perfunctory at best; at worst, it consists of broken-down trailers with sewage backing up into the bathtubs. Pay averages from minimum wage to a few dollars above it, and promises made overseas or at the border are broken by the time workers arrive. Some of these workers are kept in line by intimidation and coercion; few complain for fear of being deported.

Most New Englanders don't know these people even exist (or hear about them only in blips such as last month's van accident in Maine that killed 14 of them). In places like California, the visibility of farm workers has actually helped improve their conditions, leading to legislation requiring that they get overtime pay, worker's compensation, and the right to organize — benefits enjoyed by few of the largely unseen farm workers here. “The Northeast is an area that tends to think there are no farm workers at all,” says Daniel Rothenberg, author of With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today. “People miss that story.” To the average New Englander, this harvest is invisible, like the cloud of dust that settles slowly to the parking lot after the vans leave.

Fernando Carpio didn't have to swim across the Rio Grande to get into the United States. The place where he crossed over from Mexico in 1984 was shallow enough that he could wade most of the way. From there, he and his companions walked across the plains of Texas until they arrived in Houston, where false working papers can be had for as little as $100. “I was excited to be in the United States,” he says now, his foot propped up on a box bursting with dull purple berries. “Then I started working, and I wasn't so excited.” Long, hot days picking oranges in Florida were followed by heavy hours lifting watermelons in North Carolina. At the end of every season, he's traveled north to harvest what he calls “the hardest crop of all” — Maine wild blueberries, the same blueberries that are advertised with cardboard signs on every mile of coastal Route 1, and whipped into jams, syrups, teas, and chutneys for tourists to take home from Bar Harbor. But few tourists venture an hour farther north to the “blueberry barrens,” where bushes grow wild in acres of clearings that twist through the woods like streams in a bayou. When the sun shines, the blue dots stand out on the green like brushstrokes in a Monet painting.

This morning, Carpio woke up before sunrise, peeling himself off a pinewood bed frame in a cabin he shares with three other men. He took a cold shower, then drove out into the barrens. There he stood, hunched over, from dawn to midafternoon, dragging a heavy metal blueberry “rake” — not along the ground as someone would do when raking leaves, but upward with strong, short strokes through the tangled tops of the bushes. It's an awkward motion, and one that doesn't allow for the slow hand of fatigue. By day's end, it hurts Carpio more to stand up straight than to bend over.

It could be worse. The weather is a mercifully dry 70 degrees, rare for blueberry season in Maine. (On days when the temperature and humidity rise to the sweltering point, a yellow flag goes up and workers can voluntarily stop, but few of the Mexicans do.) More important, the rate per box this year is $2.75, which means that if he keeps up his current pace, Carpio will clear more than $100 today. Since the blueberry harvest lasts only about four weeks, it's essential that he make enough to cover the months ahead. After all, the average yearly salary of a farm worker in the United States is only $7,500.

Four years ago, conditions were even less hospitable. Back then, the rate was only $2 a box. Showers weren't open early enough in the morning for everyone to use them before working, the camp had no phones to call family in Mexico, and the toilets were pumped so infrequently, the men preferred to use the fields. Carpio and other workers organized a work stoppage, locking the gates and meeting with the company to negotiate a raise in pay and other demands. After half a day without work, the company yielded to all of them.

Now they are the lucky ones. At least their cabins are clean and well kept, and they are able to earn a living wage, if only for a few short weeks. “People think that just because you hire migrants, you abuse migrants,” says Ed Flanagan, president of Wyman's blueberry company, which operates the camp. “That's simply not the case.” Those conditions don't come without a price, however. Squeezed by cheap blueberry produce from Canada, Wyman's and other companies have been forced to cut costs and close some of their camps, leaving workers to sleep in vans, $35-a-night motel rooms, or tents with soggy mattresses, only to get up at dawn and rake berries in the syrupy heat.

Because an extra thousand dollars could mean a new truck, or a new home in Mexico, migrants are willing to put up with conditions few Americans would tolerate. “When you see us here,” says Carpio, “it's because we do a job that I guarantee you wouldn't do.”

When the eastern migrant stream began in the 1890s, it was dominated by southern blacks and European immigrants who followed the harvest from truck farm to truck farm up the coast. In the 1940s, facing wartime labor shortages, the United States began importing Mexican workers en masse. The program continued until 1964, when it was canceled amid allegations of abuse. But the Mexicans kept on coming. Nearly half of the farm workers in the Northeast today were born in Mexico, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey. Almost all of them are young men without a high school education. And more and more are coming here illegally. In 1986, Carpio took advantage of an amnesty that legalized thousands of undocumented workers. But the number of undocumented workers has begun to climb again, from less than a quarter between 1991 and 1994 to more than half between 1995 and 2000 — the same as the national average.

These workers' lack of legal status means they have little recourse when employers violate their contracts. “They're desperate for these jobs, and they don't have any bargaining power,” says Bruce Goldstein, codirector of the Farmworker Justice Fund. “The government is not willing to enforce the immigration laws against agricultural employers. They should not be allowed to have it both ways, to hire unauthorized workers and then take advantage of that unauthorized status.”

It's not uncommon for migrant farm workers to be promised high wages and free housing by recruiters, only to find lower pay or deductions from their paychecks for travel or housing once they get here. Even legal workers are exploited by employers, who take advantage of the fact that many don't speak English or understand their rights. Blueberry rakers have it better than most; because there are so many of them in such a small area, they can band together to push for improvements. While abuses do happen — three years ago, Cherryfield Foods was fined $10,000 by the U.S. Department of Labor for unsanitary conditions and other violations — they're nothing like those that occur in far-flung corners of New England that are harder for advocates to monitor.

If Maine is shaped like a glove, Caribou is the tip of the index finger. It's only a stone's throw from Canada and is surrounded by hundreds of miles of forest. To a Mexican recruited to pick broccoli, this might as well be the end of the earth. It may not be surprising, then, that broccoli grower Maine Farms treated its workers like another crop. “It's safe to say that Maine Farms violated every applicable provision of [federal law],” says Michael Guare, an attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which sued the company on behalf of 32 workers. They allege that housing conditions were abominable, with workers facing everything from filthy bathrooms to rodents. The water provided to the workers was contaminated, and the nearest fresh water was a mile down the road.

Worse still, says Guare, the workers didn't get the $8 an hour they'd been promised by the company's recruiters. Some days they didn't even get the minimum wage of $5.15. While Maine Farms does not admit to any wrongdoing, the company settled with the workers, paying some of them all of $2,500 each. (The terms of a settlement involving the other workers were kept confidential.)

It's not just Mexicans who face deplorable conditions. Puerto Rican workers, who are supposed to have the same legal rights as U.S. citizens, are also subject to violations of the contracts they sign. One group of Puerto Rican workers this summer sued Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton, charging that the farm provided them with false information about wages, hours, and housing before they arrived. “The place is a pit,” says Maria Cuerda, a legal advocate with the Massachusetts Justice Project. “We had inspectors going in and out of it all summer long, and they couldn't get their act together.” Among other indignities, workers charge, Weston Nurseries failed to provide bathrooms, washing facilities, or drinkable water at work sites. “You can write anything in a lawsuit,” responds a representative of Weston, who declined to be identified but insisted that the workers there were treated well.

Another group of Puerto Ricans, on a western Massachusetts tobacco farm, say they weren't given equipment as basic as gloves, despite the fact that they have itchy red rashes on their hands they suspect are caused by chemicals on the tobacco plants. “They treat us like animals, not like people,” says one of the workers, who, fearful of retaliation, arrange to meet in a restaurant away from the fields and speak on condition that neither they nor the farm be named. But the Puerto Ricans' resentment is also aimed in a surprising direction: at the Jamaicans who labor alongside them. Growers prefer these Jamaican workers, who work long hours without complaint for fear of losing the special “guestworker” visas that commit them exclusively to one employer. “We work just as hard as the Jamaicans,” says one of the Puerto Ricans, “but the boss can pressure them.”

Because of that pressure, these Jamaican workers may be the most vulnerable of all.

It's one of those rare Indian Summer days that cause New Englanders to shed their layers like autumn leaves. Ewart “Manny” Stewart, by contrast, is heavily dressed in jeans, work gloves, and a faded blue sweatshirt. “We come from a tropical country,” he says with a shrug, leaning back against a tractor. Husky and strong, Stewart has come from Jamaica every year since 1979 to pluck Macouns and Cortlands at Carver Hill Orchard in Bolton and Stow. A carpenter in his home country, he can pick 100 bushels on a fair day — roughly 10,000 apples.

“If you come here for three months, you know you will be working for three months,” he says. “It's steady work.” It's also skilled labor, Stewart says. Few native-born Americans have the patience and agility to pick apples for hours on end without bruising them. “I haven't seen one who wants to do it,” Stewart says proudly. “One guy came and we gave him a good tree, and he only picked one bin. He left before the day was over, and never came back.”

Technically, Stewart and his fellow Jamaicans are not migrant workers but “guestworkers,” brought in on special H-2A visas to fill worker shortages in areas where local labor is not available. Each year, New England growers import some 2,500 H-2A workers to pick apples, tobacco, and other crops, often requesting them by name from the thousands of Jamaicans who want U.S. jobs. For the growers who rely on them, it can mean the difference between full bushel baskets and a harvest rotting on the ground.

“If you don't have this program, you can't stay in business,” says Chuck Lord, the owner of Carver Hill. “We don't deny a U.S. citizen a job. Guess what? Nobody's coming.”

By federal regulation, Lord is required to provide a federally calculated wage — currently $7.94 — to his workers, as well as free housing that meets strict standards. He voluntarily provides additional incentives by offering a “piece rate” that gives his workers well above that federally mandated wage if they pick a certain amount. “I take care of my guys,” he says. “Picking apples is a crappy job, so we make the best of it. If I do well, they do well.”

Not all H-2A workers are as appreciated by their employer. Critics of the program contend that it is nothing short of indentured servitude. “This is your basic rent-a-slave,” says the Farmworker Justice Fund codirector Shelley Davis. “You can pick the healthiest and strongest workers; if they come here and, God forbid, they don't meet expectations, they are fired and deported.”

And blacklisted. One worker who asked not to be identified says he complained last year about a nightly curfew, and wasn't asked back by the grower this year. “If you speak up for your rights, that will be the last time,” he says. He's now stranded in Jamaica, where he is trying to find enough farm work to buy a few chickens. He speaks with sorrow of how his son died this year because he couldn't afford medical care. “This job is the only one you get,” he says. “If you don't get this job, you don't work.”

Knowing how desperate workers are, this worker says, growers constantly remind them they can be replaced if they don't perform to the limits of their endurance. The result is a code of omerta, even among the workers themselves. “If the boss tries to work you over your limit, and you speak of it, someone will tell the boss,” another H-2A worker in Massachusetts told Mother Jones magazine last year. “If there's a chemical sprayed in the field and you think that if you go into that field you would maybe get poisoned, you can't say anything.” Even some growers criticize the program. “In a sense, they are almost like battered women,” says Bob Jasse, owner of Alyson's Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire, who has broken ranks to reach out to advocates. “You can take advantage of them, because they'll put up with an awful lot.”

Among government officials, it's an open secret that workers who complain are effectively barred from coming back. “I've gone to Jamaica and spoken to people who have been a part of the program and, yes, that's a fact,” says Joanne McLean, who previously helped supervise the guestworker programs for the state. “Nobody's going to tell you that, but H-2A workers are less likely to complain about their living and working conditions, simply because they won't be coming back again if they do.” (Despite controls, some H-2A workers do manage to stay in the United States illegally.)

Not surprisingly, growers prefer the Jamaicans to legal U.S. or Puerto Rican workers. Because of this, advocates say, growers push the letter of the law to discourage U.S. workers from applying for jobs, scheduling interviews far in advance of start times and printing job descriptions that sound excessively harsh. Some, these advocates say, don't advertise for U.S. workers at all.

While federal officials are charged with protecting the rights of legal workers, a report by the Department of Labor's own inspector general found no instances in which growers had been penalized for failing to recruit U.S. workers. Wrote U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor in a 1999 ruling against Nourse Farms, a South Deerfield berry farm: “The fact is, when workers' rights are violated, no one gets sanctioned.”

Every decade or two, there's a new call to action. In the 1940s, it was The Grapes of Wrath. In 1960, it was Harvest of Shame, a CBS documentary with Edward R. Murrow broadcast the day after Thanksgiving. The report followed migrants who were crammed into crowded trucks and went to bed hungry on piles of straw. A flurry of legislation followed, setting basic housing and wage standards.

But none of it changed the fact that farm workers are specifically excluded from receiving almost any benefit required by federal labor laws, including overtime pay, workers' compensation, the right to unionize, and child labor protections. (Children as young as 12 can work in the fields.) Some states have tried to pick up the slack. In California, for example, battles by farm-worker organizations have led to some protections, including the right to unionize and the right to overtime pay after 10 hours of work. The only New England state that has followed suit is Maine, which instituted a law allowing workers to join labor unions, although it doesn't require employers to bargain with them or protect them from employer retaliation.

New federal legislation proposed last year would have at least given workers more rights, by offering an amnesty to legalize undocumented farm workers who, among other requirements, have worked in the United States at least 100 days in one of the preceding two years. Although the proposal was supported by both the United Farm Workers union and the National Council of Agricultural Employers, it was shot down by then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. In its place, grower advocate and Idaho Senator Larry Craig proposed a bill with so many restrictions, few immigrants would qualify. The Craig bill would eliminate some of the few protections H-2A “guestworkers” have now, including a fixed wage rate and requirements that the growers provide free housing. Critics say that would lead growers to hire more H-2A workers instead of legal U.S. workers, who can bring lawsuits or simply switch employers when they're treated badly. “This new bill would just be completely antiworker and would result in tremendous abuses by employers,” says Goldstein, who supports a competing bill cosponsored by Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, which would restore most of the original proposal. “Employers put heavy pressure on politicians, and they have the political clout. The farm workers really have no clout.”

Even now, conditions in the fields depend largely on the good graces of the growers, whose practices vary widely. Some treat workers well. “These people support this society,” says Greg Piwonski, personnel director at Imperial Farms, a Connecticut nursery that exceeds federal worker safety standards. “We should support them however we can.” But even some of the best farms fail to provide basic needs like cold drinking water. Others coerce workers into saying they've completed mandatory pesticide training, when they haven't. “It's amazing how many violations occur, given what minimal protections exist,” says Rothenberg.

Three decades ago, the NAACP and other organizations sued the government, resulting in the appointment of a “national monitor advocate” to safeguard farm workers' rights. Each state likewise named a state monitor advocate. But the positions were eviscerated as soon as they were created when they were placed under the federal and state labor departments, making them part of the same agencies they are charged with policing. As a result, many monitor advocates often are put in the position of clashing with their own superiors. “You constantly have to ight these battles,” says Roberto Carmona, former national monitor advocate, who commissioned a report criticizing the system before he left the post in July. “To be really effective, you have to get someone who's really committed, and also willing to pay the price.”

Jose Ocasio, monitor advocate for Massachusetts, declined repeated requests to be interviewed, saying in a statement that “we make every possible effort to . . . protect the workers from retaliation to the maximum extent possible under the law.” The monitor advocate for Connecticut, Walter Montes, is more candid. “No one will deny that there are problems,” he says. His job is made harder, says Montes, by workers' fears of sticking up for themselves. “If they don't complain, then it's hard to know if they are having a problem.”

Farm worker advocates in New England give high marks personally to the monitor advocates, but say their work is constantly being undermined by federal authorities. Maine monitor advocate Juan Perez-Febles, himself a Cuban immigrant and former schoolteacher, spent five years working with federal officials to document the violations that occurred at Maine Farms, the Caribou broccoli producer — at one point, having himself videotaped ankle-deep in an open leach pit.

He submitted his findings to the federal government more than a year ago, and the Bush administration — which he describes as “absolutely pro-employer” — has yet to propose any fines. “It took me five years to get to this level, and in spite of all the work, no decision has been made,” says Perez-Febles, still angry about the delay.

Perez-Febles refused to certify the farm's housing, a key component in attracting workers to such a remote location. This year, Maine Farms didn't plant broccoli. The owner “blamed me for wrecking the [local] economy,” says Perez-Febles. “I said, 'Just take care of your workers.'” (Calls to Maine Farms went unanswered.)

Perez-Febles says his state labor department has given him tremendous leeway since Maine made national headlines with the DeCoster Egg Farm case in 1996. DeCoster was the poster child of worker abuses, called by then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich “an agricultural sweatshop.” An Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation found families living in trailers with faulty plumbing that backed raw sewage into bathtubs. Equipment ran without safeguards, and barn roofs threatened to collapse. Eventually, the company was fined $2 million, and the workers filed lawsuits seeking back overtime and alleging discrimination. The discrimination suit was settled in June for $3.2 million. (Since some 1,500 workers were affected, each could see as little as $1,000 when all the money is paid out.)

“The administration didn't want another DeCoster to happen,” says Perez-Febles. “They said, 'We need you to fix this — anything you need to do that, you can have.'”

While Austin “Jack” DeCoster still owns the chickens and the real estate, seven other companies have taken over the former DeCoster Egg Farm. It remains an example of the limited effectiveness of even the most determined government oversight. While housing conditions have improved, the farm remains an appalling place to work. There are four million chickens here, their beaks cut off so they don't kill each other. One whiff of the dank corrugated-steel chicken barns explains why “chickenshit” is such an insult. Abuse from supervisors is a fact of life, says Raquel Travillo, a worker from Reynosa, Mexico, who packs eggs coming off the conveyor belt for $200 a week. One Mexican man, she says, was publicly lambasted when he complained about the pace of the work. “The supervisor was yelling at him and saying, 'If you don't like it, go back to your own country,'” Travillo recounts.

The safety and health violations also continue. In June, OSHA proposed another $344,810 in fines for four of the companies that took over from DeCoster, for 27 alleged offenses, including unguarded equipment, unsafe roofs, and unsanitary showers. (Tim O'Brien, a lawyer for the companies, says they dispute the charges.) “It's like what happens when you are driving down the highway with a broken headlight, and you pay the fine and keep driving,” says Jose Soto, head of the Maine Rural Workers Coalition, which brought the overtime case against DeCoster. “The problems don't get fixed, and the people are still suffering.”

To confine the story about migrant farm workers to statistics and examples of ill treatment is to lose sight of the intimate connection we have with them. When we wipe off an apple, we are wiping off their fingerprints. “They are so directly related to our lives in a visceral way, and that relationship is something quite beautiful in spite of all the suffering and injustice of it,” says Rothenberg.

Most of the migrants who pick the food we eat and serve our families have come to New England to support their own families. Maximo Ramos, a Peruvian worker at DeCoster, is in this country so he can make enough to put his daughter through law school, even though he sees her only once every two years as a result. “In Peru, there is only enough money for food,” he says. “There is not enough money for education.” Raquel Travillo sent enough money back to Mexico for a stomach operation for her father. Blueberry raker Jesus Moreno says his top priority, and that of many of his fellow workers, “is to remodel and make our houses nice.” He says this without irony, even though when he and his crew arrived in Maine from Veracruz, they found only one bunk bed in the cabin four of them were supposed to share. (After they complained, the camp provided another bed.) Fernando Carpio sees his wife and kids for only a few months a year, but says he's proud he's able to keep his children out of daycare. His is one of the harvest's success stories. He has bought a house in Mexico, and brought other members of his village to New England. His sister and brother-in-law live with him in Maine, where their two daughters now speak English better than their parents. As for Carpio's own children, he has put money away for their education, a little at a time. “I don't want them to do the job I do,” he says.

“To the degree that our country prides itself on a national narrative of immigrants who come here and lift themselves up with hard work, it's hard to pick a group that epitomizes this more than migrant farm workers,” says Rothenberg. Yet even if existing laws were followed, he says, “farm workers would still be extremely poor, and still labor under conditions that would not allow them to even live a basic working-class life in the United States. That's a problem our society has not taken on.”