The people who harvest our fruits and vegetables are, today, among the country’s most marginalized. They earn well below the poverty line and spend a substantial portion of the year unemployed. They do not have the right to overtime pay or to collective bargaining with their employers. In some cases, workers have faced abuses that fall under modern-day slavery statutes. “The extreme is slavery,” observed Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), while visiting farm workers in Florida. “The norm is disaster.”
This is not a new phenomenon. Since the beginning of large-scale agriculture in America, the demand for farm labor has been met by a population that lives in the shadows. Often exploited by the employers they depended on for seasonal, poverty-level wages, farm workers have, time and again, been likened to post-Civil War slaves.
In 1960, legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and his producers Fred Friendly and David Lowe attempted to draw public attention to this state of affairs with the documentary Harvest of Shame. The film — an hour-long portrait of the “humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world” — aired on CBS the day after Thanksgiving, 1960.
Watch it here:
At the end of the film, Murrow mentions that President Eisenhower’s Committee on Migratory Labor made recommendations to Congress to relieve the plight of migrant laborers. “There will of course be opposition to these recommendations: Too much government interference, too expensive, socialism,” concluded Murrow. “The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do.”
But the recommendations, and Murrow’s powerful documentary, didn’t translate to legislation. Even today, half a century after the film first aired, not much has changed.