Good Help is So Hard to Find
By the 1930s, Big Sugar had a labor problem, and so it turned where Big Business often turns: Big Government. The New Deal operated as corporate welfare in many ways, but nowhere did it serve the exploitative purposes of big business as thoroughly as in the sugarcane fields of south Florida. Most objectionable—and most relevant to today’s policy debates—was how FDR and Big Sugar teamed up to use open borders and guest-worker programs to subvert the free market.
The sugar industry in America has never really operated in a free market. Cane sugar in Florida wouldn’t exist if the state government hadn’t drained the Everglades. It would disappear if the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t permanently alter the landscape and manage it at taxpayer expense to expose the muck soil and keep the water level just right for the growers.
Washington also provides subsidies to all sugar farmers in the form of loans collateralized by sugar—about 18 cents per pound. The world price of sugar is usually around 10 cents per pound or less, but the federal government also drastically limits sugar imports, ensuring a domestic price of about twice that. Uncle Sam also subsidizes private sugar storage facilities.
It is only fitting then that the federal government would subsidize Big Sugar’s labor needs....
Enter Franklin Roosevelt’s guest-worker program. Through an intergovernmental agreement on March 16, 1943, Roosevelt launched what later became the British West Indies Program (BWI). This opened the gates to farm workers from Jamaica, the Bahamas, and other Caribbean isles.
But FDR’s plan was not just about opening the borders to these workers. Under FDR’s BWI program, the federal government became an active partner with the sugar growers. Historian David McCally writes, “Between 1943 and 1947, the United States government played a direct role in negotiating employment contracts for offshore laborers and paid the cost of round-trip transportation for all workers between their homes and the United States.”
Once again, Big Sugar was getting by on Big-Government largesse, but Uncle Sam’s help in this situation was not merely in footing the boat fare for the cane cutters. Roosevelt’s BWI program—and the guest-worker program that it grew into—provided sugar growers with the ideal worker.
One promotional film by the Florida Sugar Cane League claims, “To watch a West Indian wield a cane knife is to see a centuries-old art,” reports Alec Wilkinson, author of Big Sugar. The clear implication was that West Indian workers are ideal for cutting cane because of some innate skill. In truth, they are the model cane workers because a workforce constantly under threat of deportation is a docile workforce.
West Indian laborers entering Florida under these immigration programs were even more beholden to their employers than were the black field hands of the decades before. Their vulnerability at the hands of their bosses extended far beyond the typical disadvantages a foreigner suffers in a new land. The BWI cane cutter was allowed into the country explicitly to perform one job. This meant that if his boss didn’t like him, he could send the worker out of the country.
Wilkinson writes that a sugar boss in the field who thought one cutter was working too slowly could “check him out”—send him back to his barracks with no wages for the day. If one worker was checked out three times in one season, the sugar farmer would send him back to his home country. If this was before the midpoint of the cane-cutting season, the worker himself was obligated, by the terms of his contract, to pay his roundtrip fare.
This advantage to the farmers of hiring temporary foreign workers was no accident. It was deliberate. In 1940, one grower wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that if Washington were to help them find labor, the Bahamas would be a far better source than either the U.S. or its territory Puerto Rico. “The vast difference between the Bahama Island labor and domestic, including Puerto Rican,” wrote the farmer, “is that labor transported from the Bahama Islands can be deported and sent home, if it does not work, which cannot be done in the instance of labor from domestic United States or Puerto Rico.”
This moment of brutal honesty by a sugar farmer in the months before World War II gives us insight into the mind of shrewd employers throughout the decades. If your worker’s visa limits him to working for you, you become, in effect, the government.
Carney, by the way, is the author of a forthcoming book, The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money.