The year is 1938: The Fair Labor Standards Act establishes a national minimum age, wage and overtime work policy, with the exception of farm workers. Jump to 2007: An amendment, the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), is introduced to bring national standards for child labor to farmhands, but it never reaches the House. Meanwhile, director U. Roberto Romano was documenting the fate of three affected children in the U.S. for his film The Harvest/La Cosecha. This Friday and Saturday he’ll join the producers for the 7:40 screenings at the Quad Cinema at 34 West 13th Street (tickets here). We got a sneak peek last week, and we think you’re going to want to see this one.
The movie goes deep into Tomatoland, exposing the harsh conditions and paltry pay that comes with work on Florida fields. There’s also large onion fields in Texas and apple groves in Michigan that keep farmworkers on the move, chasing after the harvest. That includes not only single men but also families with kids who offer to help their parents make ends meet.
Many start as young as 7 or 8 and know of nothing else, like Zulema (12), who can’t remember a time when she wasn’t picking. There there’s Perla (14) and Victor (16). The film hinges on their narration, their experience as migrants waking up at 4 a.m., working in 100-degree weather, and hoping their grades transfer to wherever their families find work, while their classmates finish the school year and talk of summer break.
Victor picks 1,500 pounds of tomatoes on a slow day. He’s paid $1 per 25-pound bucket. Each tomato costs 99 cents at the grocery store, which means his family can’t even afford what he picks. But he’s surprisingly happy about his hard work and has no dream to be rich. “If I can just have a secure job and have enough to live and eat, that’s fine with me,” he says.
“Secure” might mean steady or it might mean safe, and this workspace is neither. “One day, my skin started to fall off,” says Victor in the film, who’s way below the tested body weight for legal exposure to toxic pesticides, which is based on a 160-pound male. Many states still have a low-ball minimum wage and overtime policy for agricultural labor, and forget about insurance. Workers aren’t even guaranteed one day off in every seven—and a move to fix that was actually vetoed by California, the first state to address it, last year. The CARE Act would change this, says director Romano.
If Cesar Chavez were alive today, he’d have a Twitter account and he’d be sending you to PopVox to urge you to nudge your Congressfolk to reintroduce this pushed-aside Act. And he’d ask you to por favor, see this film. It’s a damning, if not beautiful, look into the lives of migrant families between the humbling laughs around the hardships, the conversations over dinners, and the tough decisions of how best to support their kids.
Ultimately, it’s a peaceful protest for rights we thought we’d all already fought for.