Farm Worker Program

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Farm Worker Program

From 1943 to 1947, under the terms of intergovernmental agreements with British West Indian governments, the U.S. government recruited and transported approximately seventy thousand Jamaicans, Barbadians, and Bahamians to the United States for agricultural employment. The stimulus for the agreements came from American farmers, especially large growers, who complained to the federal government that they were experiencing a shortage of farm labor. Many rural men and women entered the armed forces during World War II, while others escaped the low wages of farmwork for the better wages offered in the expanding defense industry. As men and women deserted the farms, farmers became increasingly concerned about their dwindling supply of labor, and although there was no severe scarcity of domestic workers, the federal government was convinced to create an emergency program to alleviate labor shortages on farms.

Concurrent with American growers' struggle to recruit labor, the Caribbean was experiencing extreme economic devastation and political upheaval. In the late 1930s, high levels of unemployment and sociopolitical unrest led to riots throughout the Commonwealth Caribbean. Colonial administrations had only begun to propose remedies to the problems that gave impetus to the riots when World War II began. Additionally, wartime restrictions on shipping created food shortages and devastated the tourist industry in the Bahamas and on other islands, thereby exacerbating the already high levels of unemployment. These conditions encouraged Caribbean administrations and colonial authorities in Great Britain to support the American plan to transport West Indians to the United States for farmwork.

Jamaican officials were hopeful that the proposed American farmworker program would employ thousands of men between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four, the demographic with the highest unemployment rate. Such a program would alleviate some of the island's unemployment problems. They also expected the farmworkers' compulsory savings and remittances home to be an additional benefit, particularly as the money the farmworkers earned in a few months in the United Sates would take an entire year to earn in Jamaica. In fact, between the launching of the farm labor program in 1943 and its termination in 1947, West Indian farmworkers remitted to their home islands more than $40 million.

For these reasons, the United States successfully secured agreements with the government of the Bahamas (on March 16, 1943) and the government of Jamaica (on April 2, 1943) to bring West Indian labor to the United States. These two agreements established the British West Indies (BWI) Temporary Alien Labor Program. Barbadians were initially excluded because of the greater distance involved and additional transportation costs. The Barbadian governor urged their inclusion, however, and by 1944, Barbadians were employed on U.S. farms. Jamaicans always accounted for the largest number of Caribbean foreign workers in the United States, second only to the Mexican braceros (workers) employed on the West Coast.

The first Bahamian men and women arrived in the United States in April 1943 and one month later Jamaicans joined them (only men were recruited from Jamaica). In 1943 more than eleven thousand Jamaican men were employed in the United States. They were dispersed throughout fourteen states, including approximately 1,150 in Connecticut, 2,700 in Indiana, 950 in Michigan, 1,600 in New Jersey, and 2,000 in New York. In 1945, roughly 33,000 Jamaicans were employed in thirty-eight of the forty-eight states. Jamaican men worked on seasonal crops, which required significant hand labor in cultivation and harvest. Most were employed along the eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine. Workers harvested rhubarb, asparagus, peas, spinach, and beets in Pennsylvania; picked strawberries, spinach, onions, and potatoes in New York and New Jersey; worked on tobacco farms in Connecticut; and even helped bring in the sugar beet crops in Idaho and Michigan. During each contract period, Jamaican men were relocated from one locality to the next, with most ending the season cutting cane in Florida.

Since the fall of 1943, Jamaican men have cut cane in Florida. When the first 1943 intergovernmental agreement between Jamaica and the United States was signed, however, Jamaican men were not allowed to receive employment in southern states. Given the racial climate in the American South, colonial officials feared for the well-being of Jamaican men. However, pressure exerted by large citrus and sugarcane growers eventually led to a reversal of this policy. The first Jamaican men arrived in Clewiston, Florida, in early October 1943 via Michigan, and men later poured in from Connecticut and other New England states, where employment in the winter months was impracticable. The Jamaican men sent to Florida were contracted to work for the United States Sugar Corporation, a large agricultural company known for its Jim Crowstyle working conditions and extremely low wages. Those that protested the corporation's unfair treatment or excessively low wages were subject to unlawful imprisonment, repatriation, and physical abuse.

According to the intergovernmental agreement, West Indian farmworkers were employed by the U.S. government, not individual farmers, and they were thus guaranteed basic protections. Each worker signed a contract with the U.S. government detailing the government's obligations. The agreements stated that workers would receive a minimum of thirty cents an hour, be provided employment for at least 75 percent of the time, be housed in sanitary facilities maintained or approved by the U.S. government, and receive "all necessary food, health and medical care and other subsistence living facilities." Despite the contract provisions, however, workers complained that housing, food, and wage standards were frequently disregarded. In the summer of 1943, some Jamaicans employed with small Michigan beet growers were housed in fair-ground cattle exhibition sheds; in 1944, in Ohio, the men were housed in garages. Those not housed with their employers were placed in government camps called Farm Labor Supply Centers. These facilities were not permanent structures and usually were very basic accommodations, in either Army-issued tents or prefabricated wooden huts. The quantity and quality of the food served in the camps was also a point of great frustration. Because of wartime rationing, certain food items, especially the products Jamaican men liked the mostmeat, sugar, and ricewere in very short supply. Yet, more than any other issue, dissatisfaction over wages was the most contentious. Jamaican men's contract stated, "there shall be no strikes, lockouts, or stoppages of work during the period of employment," but they frequently organized work stoppages and used other creative tactics to force farmers to improve their wages and comply with contract standards.

On April 28, 1947, Congress terminated the wartime British West Indies Temporary Alien Labor Program, although the program did not officially conclude until December 31, 1947. On January 1, 1948, the wartime program was replaced by a system of individual contracts between American employers and Jamaican men. Employers wanting Jamaican farmworkers could, with authorization from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, recruit within Jamaica or other West Indian islands. The disadvantage of the post-1947 agreements was that each contract was concluded after separate negotiations with individual employers. In 1952 this temporary system received permanent sanction when the Department of Labor, under section H-2A of the new Immigration Nationality Act, authorized American employers to contract with West Indian men for farm work. The H-2A program permitted American farmers to hire foreign workers if they could prove that no domestic workers wanted the jobs, and it gave employers complete discretion in where and how to recruit workers. Since 1952, American employers have recruited in Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Dominica, and Barbados, although Jamaicans have remained the largest group of West Indian farmworkers. Many have continued to pick citrus fruits and cut sugarcane in Florida, while others pick apples in New York and New England. Under the H-2A provisions, problems of housing, food, wages, and general mistreatment of Jamaican farm workers continue to beleaguer the program into the twenty-first century, just as they did during World War II.


Hahamovitch, Cindy. "'In America Life Is Given Away': Jamaican Farmworkers and the Making of Agricultural Immigration Policy." In The Countryside in the Age of the Modern State: Political Histories of Rural America, edited by Catherine McNicol Stock and Robert D. Johnston. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Manuel-Scott, Wendi N. "Soldiers of the Field: Jamaican Farm Workers in the United States during World War II." Ph.D. diss., Howard University, Washington, D.C., 2003.

Rasmussen, Wayne D. A History of the Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program, 19431947. Agriculture Monograph No. 133. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Agricultural Economics, 1951.

Wood, Charles H., and Terry L. McCoy. "Caribbean Cane Cutters in Florida: Implication for the Study of the Internationalization of Labor." In The Americas in the New International Division of Labor, edited by Steven Sanderson. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1985.

wendi n. manuel-scott (2005)