Grapes of wrath redux in South Florida

If you thought that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath described a period long past in the history of labor in the US, then you should check out this Opinion column by Eric Schlosser in The New York Times.

The migrant farm workers who harvest tomatoes in South Florida have one of the nation’s most backbreaking jobs, working for 10 to 12 hours a day, picking tomatoes by hand, and earning a piece-rate of about 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket, according to Schlosser. “During a typical day each migrant picks, carries and unloads two tons of tomatoes. For their efforts, this holiday season many of them are about to get a 40 percent pay cut,” says Schlosser.

The Grapes of Wrath, you will recall, is the story of the Joads of Oklahoma, who after defaulting on loans back during the Great Depression, are lured into joining the ranks of laborers picking fruit in California. On arrival in California, they find hordes of applicants for jobs, and little hope of getting a decent wage, because of the oversupply of labor, lack of rights, and the collusion of the big corporate farmers.

In South Florida today, the place of the “Okies” in The Grapes of Wrath have been taken by illegal migrants with no rights, and exploited by the tomato farmers, working in collusion with the American fast food chains. Perhaps 80 percent of the migrants in Florida are illegal immigrants and thus especially vulnerable to abuse, according to Schlosser.

This is not a crisis of capitalism. On the contrary capitalism has worked too well, with the invisible hand pushing down wages as labor is abundant and illegal. It is public policy and civil society that seems to have surrendered its role to big business.

In “Supercapitalism”, Robert Reich argues that corporations are trying to influence governments and public policy as a way to get competitive advantage. As long as people respond as consumers and investors, looking for the best deal and lowest price, they will abdicate their role as citizens in a democratic society, influencing public policy.

The answer to the problem of illegal migrants is evidently not to exploit them. The solution lies in regularizing their migration, after the US decides whether it needs more labor or not. There is already legislation aiming at regularizing illegal migrants, but that will not become law until the US Presidential elections are over, or maybe a lot later. In the meantime, capitalism will continue to deliver efficiently for big business, and very cruelly for the migrants.

PS: Google Video has recently put up the 20th Century Fox movie version of The Grapes of Wrath. The movie is in black-and-white, but that in fact helps accentuate the starkness, despair, and false hopes of the Joad family’s struggle. Click here to view movie

Related articles:

Free markets do not necessarily mean democracy or quality of life

Thoughts on Che Guevara and the cruelty of capitalism

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