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Need Work? Take a Farm Job

An offer 15 million unemployed Americans can refuse

Harrington is in the heart of the Maine’s blueberry country, a place where close to 8,000 migrant and seasonal farm workers come to rake berries each summer on low rolling barrens. Unemployment in the region hovers around 10 percent. Last year, when a nonprofit planned to build more permanent housing for the hundred or so Hispanics who live and work there year-round, one resident complained, saying, “When there is very little work, bringing more people in does not solve the problem.”

As the initial finger-pointing of the financial crisis has moved on from white-collar criminals, complaints about how immigrants are stealing jobs has again resurfaced. So the United Farm Workers of America has a plan. If you’re unemployed and okay with long days stooped over in the sun, a small paycheck, no workers compensation, then stop reading this now and head to a farm. They would like to train you to cut 3,000 heads of lettuce in a day and pick cucumbers while lying on your stomach for 10 hours. Seriously. The plan is called: Take Our Jobs. And, look, even Stephen Colbert is expected to take them up on the offer tonight.

After all, farm work is abundant. Under the Labor Department’s H-2A program, which brought 86,014 foreign workers in 2009, employers must first show there are not “sufficient able, willing, and qualified United States workers.” And those 86,014 jobs only accounted for about 10 percent of the agricultural workforce. In other words, the bulk of farm workers—another 900,000 or so—goes undocumented. And frankly, in many places, there are more jobs than there are people. It’s just that few Americans want to do the dirty work.

If the reception to Take Our Jobs so far is any indication, it’s going to stay that way. Four thousand registered for updates; only three took jobs, CNN reported. The Associated Press also reported that California launched a similar recruiting campaign in 1998 for welfare recipients and unemployed workers—and the same thing happened. Three people showed up.

I called Gabriel Thompson, who worked in Yuma, Arizona’s lettuce fields and wrote a book about the experience called Working in the Shadows. “There are jobs out there,” he says. “I applied for a job on Friday and I think I was in the fields on Monday. Some of the work in Yuma pays up to fifteen dollars an hour. The problem is that it’s so strenuous. When I first started, people said, ‘The first five days are the hardest. And then, you stop being sore.’ No, it’s really that you stop remembering what it’s like to not be sore.”

Because fresh fruits and vegetables are easy to find, it’s easy to forget that much of our food is harvested and packaged by farmworkers who work hard—despite the absence of a permanent legal solution to work. And that’s another point of the Take Our Jobs campaign—to raise awareness about immigration and a bill known as AgJobs, a bipartisan bill makes it easier to hire temporary workers under the H2A program and gives undocumented workers to citizenship.

Even if you’re not going to take a job, it’s time to acknowledge the hard work and pride that goes into much of the country’s fresh produce. And the campaign certainly should cause us to think about how fruits and vegetables should relate to immigration reform.

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