The Sacrifices that the Migrant Workers Have Made in the United States
Chi Yuan Wu
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Professor Dorothy M. Farias
AG 4010 – 10Topic Paper #1
October 13, 2018
In today’s society, most of the people want to buy their food at a more affordable price. However, this behavior can unintentionally lower farm workers wages and worsen their living conditions. In these three films: The Harvest/La Cosecha (2011), Harvest of Shame (1960), and Harvest of Dignity (2012), they discuss the unethical usage of labor from The Great Migration to contemporary American society and document the difficulties of their lives on a daily basis. While the majority of the United States encourages their children to dream big and is supportive of the decisions of younger generations, children of migrant workers are working hard in the fields losing sight of their dreams and hopes. In this essay, I will be analyzing four ethical theories including Consequentialism, Cultural Relativism, Ethical Egoism, and Social Contract Theory. migrant worker’s lives are carefully examined and considered in light of what is truly justifiable as morale and what is and could actually be bearable.
From parents’ point of view, they are willing to provide the best resources for their children. However, in the case of the migrant farm workers, anyone capable of physical labor even including their children are pushed into working as a child labor in order to earn more money. Under the Ethical Theory of Consequentialism, these children of migrant workers working on the field have to battle between receiving an education and earning extra income for their family. Consequentialism holds that the consequence and outcome of one’s conduct is the sole indicator of what is morally right (Mastin, 2008). It may be justifiable for parents to take their kids from the classroom to the fields because they need them to loosen the financial burden.
Although Consequentialist theory justifies the need for children as field workers over classroom achievers, there has been changes in children’s lives after watching both of these films: Harvest of Shame (1960) and Harvest of Dignity (2012). In Harvest of Shame, Edward R. Murrow mentions that children are left while their parents are working throughout the day (1960). He also shows clips about the perception on summer school kids from teachers, how they are not optimistic about how certain children will advance in respective to their living conditions. In 1960, Consequentialist theory supports that education was not prioritized for children of migrant workers because it was even difficult for them to feed these children. In 2011, the film called “Harvest of Dignity” mentions some support programs for migrant children and possess a more positive attitude for their balance between work and school. The outcome that a child can do well in school while contributing labor in the field and income for their family supports the positive change since the publication of the film called Harvest of Shame.
Cultural Relativism states that good and bad are relative to culture, in that these actions are not absolute but rather different (Farias, Cultural Relativism, p. 2). This ethical theory justifies the mistreatment of migrant workers because they agreed to these conditions so that they can provide labor in exchange of a paycheck. The migrant workers of today, as shown in Harvest of Dignity, are exposed to the similar terrible working conditions as their 1960’s counterparts. The reason is that either this way of life is better than that of how it was before, or workers feel they belong in that specific farming culture (Campbell, 2012). Note how in Harvest of Shame, Murrow repeatedly ask migrant workers in the interviews if they ever feel as though they can get out of this lifestyle (1960). Surprisingly, most of the workers say no as if they are part of this farming culture. It is unfortunate that the press interprets the farmers believe these migrant workers are willing to accept these poor conditions, in that they are better off with these jobs.
Over the past few decades, the society was limited to significant changes. The issue of terrible living and working conditions still exist. Repeatedly today, there is one toilet for every ten workers, in addition to sewage problems that even children are exposed to. Migrant farm workers that come from Mexico do not have many legal or moral protection because of cultural relativism, which holds that moral principles are dependent on culture and individual choices (Farias, Cultural Relativism, p. 3). With that being said, it is acceptable for the farmers to provide such poor-quality living spaces and lack of sanitation to Mexican migrant workers under the condition. Due to limited amount of choices, they are granted relatively better lives through these job opportunities. The interviewer called Guernina in the film Harvest of Dignity (2012) mentions that her life is much better in the United States. Her perception is based on the cultural upbringing that she had. This ethical condition of relativism also places prejudice towards perceptions of these workers, as Ingrid, an adopted girl in Guernina’s home, mentions that they are not treated as a human being. For example, she mentions that dogs are treated better because workers are not provided with beds. It’s interesting to note that the younger generation, who has partially adopted the U.S culture, who has access to see the other student’s privileges, can note the terrible conditions in contrast to the perspective from Guernina.
In general, children who are agricultural labors in the US are mostly from the cultural groups that lives in poverty and have limited access to education. In reality, it can be difficult to report children in these circumstances, which limits the opportunities for protection. It is important to create a law to protect these labors who are not familiar with the legal system in US. Cultural and ethical relativism theories bring out the lack of protection because these children and their parents choose to place them in the fields. The children who provide income to families by working in the fields have to no other options because they have been born into this social status. Both Harvest of Shame (1960) and Harvest of Dignity (2012), largely cover the issue of children labors and some problems that are in field of cultural relativism. Furthermore, most state agriculture law ignores the rightness of children being a farm worker: children as young as ten can work thirty hours a week even today was mentioned the in the documentary (Harvest of Dignity, 2012).
Nowadays, agribusiness is very price sensitive because of the pressure from customers and farm workers. Since there are so many competitors and suppliers, it drives the prices down. If one farmer decides to pay migrant farm workers the right salary, he will be swallowed by other famers who are competing against him in terms of wages. Under the theory of Ethical Egoism, farmers will be able to overlook the morality of their workers and their living conditions in order to achieve the success of their own farming business. Ethical Egoism states that human being acts out of self-interest because it is the best interest for the public in the long run (Farias, Ethical Egoism, p. 12). In a journal article called “Gambling on Grapes,” the author mentions the farmers under paid their workers so much that their workers decided to strike and protest in front of a winery in Napa Valley. Therefore, for a farmer, regardless of benefiting the worker’s conditions, their priority goes to maximizing profit and harvest.
Unfortunately, as a human being, no one deserves to live in the conditions that most of the migrant workers live in. These workers left their country to find a better living situation for their family but corruption in the agricultural business got many of the families stuck in a loop of chasing meals. The Harvest (2011), mentions that more than 300,000 farm workers suffer from health concerns, such as pesticide poisoning every year and that the average farm migrating family in the United States makes $17,500 which is under the poverty line of $24,000. These farm working families are not able to get food stamps, welfare and can’t even benefit from the food banks due to their legal status. It is unfair to deny services such as healthcare and social services working within the walls of the United States. Overall, the Ethical Egoism theory does not justify the inhumane conditions of the migrant worker environment.
Social Contract Theory
The Social Contract Theory states that social goods require the social cooperation of social goods, such as farming, industry, education, housing, and technology (Farias, Social Contract Theory, p. 1). One the Harvest of Dignity website, it provides an extensive list of resources that shares stories and statistics that helps people who are experiencing similar problems as a guideline to follow. In terms of Social Contract Theory, the government and authority in United Sates are healing to the right directions of enforcing social ethics and obligations for migrant workers. For example, public education, taxes, and awareness are all tools to improve the lives of migrant workers in the Social Contract Theory. Individuals who has the power to bring awareness to the public, such as producers Edward R. Murrow of Harvest of Shame (1960), Donna Campbell of Harvest of Dignity (2012), and U.R. Romano of The Harvest (2011) facilitate people to willingly get the government’s attention. It is idealistic but hopeful to have a farm labor system that is ethical in all areas, such as business, human rights, and labor. To put this into practice, a lot of time and money will have to be sacrificed to enforce policies, to build livable habitats, and ensure profitable and ethical business conditions.
From the past to the present, migrant workers have suffered from many ethical issues in the field of agribusiness. After going through some strikes and protests, most of the migrant farmers have gained some financial supports from the public. Most importantly, their children are able to receive better educations and work their way up to have better living conditions. Overall, the sacrifices that the migrant workers made from the past have helped their children to get a citizenship in America and eliminated the risk of being deported back to Mexico due to the legal status.
Campbell, D. (Producer). (2012, August 16). Harvest of Dignity Video. A Minnow Media Production. Received from http://video.unctv.org/video/2268914359/
Farias, D. M. (2013). Cultural Relativism_Bb Notes Powerpoint Slides.
Farias, D. M. (2013). Ethical Egoism_Bb Notes Powerpoint Slides.
Farias, D. M. (2013). Social Contract Theory_Labor Issues Bb Notes Powerpoint Slides. (2016). Harvest of Dignity: Resources Web post. Retrieved from
Mastin, L. (2008). The Basics of Philosophy: Consequentialism Web log post. Retrieved from http://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_consequentialism.html
Murrow, E. R. (Journalist), & Friendly, F. W. (Director). (1960, November 25). Harvest of Shame CBS Reports. David Lowe (Producer). USA: CBS.
Lamoree, E. (2012). Gambling on Grapes: Management, Marketing, and Labor in California Agribusiness. Agricultural History, 86(3), 104-127. doi:10.3098/ah.2012.86.3.104
Romano, U. R. (Producer), & O’Connor, R. (Producer), ; Longoria, E. (Producer), ; Romano, U. R. (Director). (2011). The Harvest: La Cosecha Motion picture. United States: Cinema Libre Studio.