Work in the Strawberry Fields
The fastest growing and most profitable segment of California's farm economy--the cultivation of high-value specialty crops--has also become one of the most dependent upon the availability of cheap labor. Nearly every fruit and vegetable found in the diets of health-conscious eaters is picked by hand. As the demand for these foods has risen, so has the number of workers necessary to harvest them. Illegal immigrants are willing to work long hours for low wages. Of the migrants in California today, anywhere from 30 to 60 percent, depending upon the crop, are illegal immigrants. The rise in the number of migrant workers in California, along with the growth in the proportion who are illegal immigrants, reflects a national trend that has passed largely unnoticed. Schlosser states, "All those who now consider themselves devotees of the market should take a good look at what is happening in California."
- Schlosser defines the "new servitude" as the system of sharecropping, common
in the South after the Civil War. Because tenants pay high rent and receive low
prices for their goods and because they receive unfavorable conditions in contracts
they often cannot read, they become economically enslaved to the land they farm.
- The "search for a peasantry" refers to the constant demand for low-wage, low-skill,
illiterate and often illegitimate workers who can be easily exploited.
- California state laws and law enforcement condone illegal immigration, which
makes it difficult for workers to form labor unions. There cannot be much threat
of a strike by workers if many more can easily be found to take their place.
- Americans have "bowed down to the market" by allowing farm workers to be treated
unfairly so as to keep costs low.
- From a structure-functional perspective, what important role do migrant workers
fill for U.S. society?
- From a structure-functional perspective, in what ways might the conditions
of migrant farm workers harm the well-being of US society?
- From a conflict perspective, how would we interpret the working conditions
of migrant farm laborers?