RMSA Blog

Impact of Imperialism in the Agricultural Labor World

Sep 7, 2021

Acknowledging Imperialism from the Perspective of the Oppressed

For well over 500 years Western Imperialism has maintained a crippling grip on the agricultural and common labor force and has literally shaped every aspect of labor law, enforcement, migration, immigration, and compensation throughout the globe. The American agricultural Labor experience like most countries in the “New” world is one that depends upon several key imperialistic and capitalistic principles that are rooted in racism, white supremacy, slavery, exploitation, violence, and resource extractions.

The goal of this memo is to share with our readers some truths about the historical and contemporary realities individuals, mostly immigrant and low-income peoples, face so that we may work together to develop a future that truly reflects principles that are rooted in justice, equity, inclusion, diversity, and natural law. Here are some important historical moments that have led to our modern-day realities which based on this history, we can argue that in modern times not much has changed: white farmers own more than 97% of US farmland and farm businesses, and farm workers, the vast majority of which are people of color, continue to be some of the most exploited workers in the US.

Timeline of Agricultural Labor in the US
To begin, historically, in the 400-years of British colonies and the USA, agricultural workers have been recruited from other countries with poor and vulnerable populations or outright stolen, have been treated predominantly as a disenfranchised group, and for 87% of our history had no right to vote. We can see in our history of exploitation of labor and land the foundation for our broken agricultural system today.

  • 1607: First permanent English Colony established in Jamestown by the investors of the Virginia Company. Indentured servants, the vast majority were poor, brought from England to work in the fields of the Virginia Company, and then later for the other British colonies. They were guaranteed passage into the colonies in exchange for 4-7 years of their labor and the promise of freedom, supplies, and land. Conditions were so treacherous, the life expectancy of an indentured servant, after arrival, was no more than 7 years.
  • 1618: Headright system established. Tobacco takes off as the first ‘cash crop’ under VA Company lead by tobacco magnate John Rolfe. The Company needs land and labor. The beginnings of genocidal wars with Indigenous Nations provide the land. The lure of freedom and land in the ‘New World’ brings European indentured servants to work in the tobacco fields.
  • 1619: First Africans are stolen and brought to Jamestown, Virginia, and sold as laborers.
  • 1640: Given the severe labor conditions, runaways of European, Africans, and Indigenous laborers are common. VA court sentences a “Scotsman, Dutchman and Negro”, who together conspired to runaway and were caught. Europeans are sentenced to 4 additional years of servitude while the Africans were sentenced with lifetime servitude (first documented sentencing disparity in VA).
  • 1660: Runaways of laborers continue so VA colony legislature passes ACT XXII which says that if Europeans run away with “Negroes” and in the event that the Africans are not found, the European servants will take on lifetime servitude in place of the Africans. This is the first time the VA legislature documents that Africans are laboring under lifetime servitude (ie. Slavery).
  • 1662: Virginia enacts ACT XII, upending centuries of English tradition where children follow the status of the father. Act XII states that children will henceforth follow the status of the mother, free or bond (enslaved). As slavery expanded, this Act enabled European men, whether from consensual or forced sexual relations with African or Indigenous women, to become self-breeders of slaves and avoid the costs of purchasing agricultural and domestic labor.
  • 1676: Bacon’s Rebellion is an alliance of laborers and small land owners – poor Europeans,
    Africans, and Native Americans – who take over Virginia, burn Jamestown to the ground and force the ruling oligarchy to flee to ships in the harbor. Governor Berkeley sent word to King James to urgently send reinforcements as “6 of 7 are poor, discontented and armed.” VA company realizes it must address labor solidarity and cross-racial alliances.
  • 1680-1690s: ‘White’ as a race and legal concept is introduced by the Virginia legislature to drive a wedge between poor European laborers/indentured servants and laborers from Africa and Indigenous Nations. Whites were offered advantages while Africans and Indigenous People see oppression increase. The ruling ‘white’ aristocracy wanted to erase any chance that poor Europeans would find common cause with their African and Indigenous laborer brethren.
  • 1705: An Act Concerning Servants and Slaves. Determines that negroes (blacks), ‘mulattos’ (people of mixed race), and Indians (indigenous people) are real estate (chattel property). White servants are given advantages: the right to sue in court if not released from indenture and with promises from Virginia to provide freed indentures with 50 acres, 30 shillings, 10 bushels of corn, a suit, and a musket (rifle). Since poor Europeans are needed as overseers on plantations and for slave patrols, the Act empowers ‘white’ servants to legally correct, punish, and/or kill a slave. These “slave codes”, first established in Virginia, serve as the template for White advantage and Black and Brown disadvantage for all the British Colonies for the subsequent 150 years (until Civil War).
  • 1705-1850s: When indentured servants were not providing enough labor, Colonies ramp up imports on Africans to work as laborers in the growing plantation economy and as domestic servants in the expanding British colonies.
  • 1785, 1800, and 1862: Land Ordinance Act, Harrison Land Act, and Homestead Acts distribute hundreds of millions of acres of land stolen from Indigenous Nations to “white” citizens or prospective citizens. These acts distribute 98% of US land to white farmers and landowners.
  • After 1848: Following the end of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), the US took 55% of Mexican territory and tens of thousands of migrant workers from Mexico began arriving in the United States (former territory of Mexico). In many cases, they freely moved across the border for temporary jobs and then returned home.
  • 1865-1866: The Black Codes were created after the Civil War. Their intention was to limit the rights of black people. The laws included requiring a special permit for black people who wanted to work in anything other than agricultural labor, prohibiting them from raising their own crops, and requiring that they seek permission to travel. These laws were repealed in 1866 because they were too harsh.
  • 1866-1870s: During the Reconstruction era, the US government passed laws to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude (13th Amendment of the Constitution), give all men born in the US -including African Americans – citizenship rights and equal protection (14th Amendment of the Constitution), and the right to vote (15th Amendment of the Constitution).
  • 1860s-1930s: Farming transforms itself from a plantation and slavery-based agriculture into a large-scale industry with paid labor. As African Americans fled the plantation economy and moved into other industries, the US began importing Asian labor to meet labor needs in agriculture. By 1886, 7 out of every 8 US farm workers were Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino workers who were brought into the country.
  • 1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act banned the employment of Chinese workers. It was the first major US legislative action to restrict the flow of a specific racial group of immigrant workers.
  • 1890s-mid 1900s: Even though the constitutional amendments were passed, segregation was maintained under “Jim Crow laws”, which further systematized advantages for whites and inferior treatment and accommodations for African Americans. Former slaves and their descendants continued to work in the fields because they were in debt with the landowner or by sharecropping (working the fields in return for a share of the crop produced in the land).
  • 1914-1918: During World War I, migration to the US from Europe declined, increasing the demand for Mexican labor to fill the void. During this period, growers lobbied to create the first guest worker program, allowing more than 70,000 Mexican workers into the US. The program ended in 1921.
  • 1924: The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia.
  • Early 1930s: Filipino workers started to organize, and Mexican workers were brought into the
    fields as farm workers.
  • 1930s: The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl (the destruction of 150 million acres of farmland due to a period of poor soil management and drought that followed upon ecological destruction of the prairie and its millions of buffalo) forced white farmers to sell their farms and become migrant workers who traveled from farm to farm to pick fruit and other crops at starvation wages. Hoover’s sentiment that “American jobs are for real Americans” was largely shared by the majority white population and led to more than 1 million Mexican Americans (more than half US citizens) being deported or pressured to leave, during the Mexican Repatriation and the number of farm workers of Mexican descent decreased. Finally, in this period, the US government also passed a series of labor laws to protect workers, but that excluded farm workers and domestic laborers, the jobs that were historically held by African Americans, Mexicans, and other immigrants. These laws specifically exclude farm workers from basic labor protections such as overtime pay, workers’ compensation, protection for unionizing and collective bargaining, workers’ compensation, and child labor laws.
  • 1942-1964: Due to labor shortages because of WWII, the government started the Bracero Program. This program imported temporary laborers from Mexico to work in the fields and on railroads. The program was also seen as a complement to efforts against undocumented workers, or in favor of programs of deportation (such as Operation Wetback). Operation Wetback led to 1.3 million deportations of laborers of Mexican descent, the largest mass deportation in US history.
  • 1943: Sugar cane growers in FL obtained permission to hire Caribbean workers to cut sugar cane on temporary visas.
  • 1952: Temporary guest worker visa program was made an official law as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
  • 1962: Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta joined the organizing efforts of the Filipino farm workers and founded the National Farm Workers Association (later to become the United Farm Workers – UFW) in California. Their worker-led movement drew national attention to farm workers’ struggles and laid the groundwork for other farmworker unions and organizations.
  • 1964: The Bracero program was ended because of the abuses to which Bracero workers were subjected. The enforcement of regulations on Bracero wages, housing, and food charges was negligible; to this day, Bracero workers who worked in the fields are still fighting to get the 10% mandatory reductions from their wages that they were supposed to receive when their contracts ended and they returned to Mexico.
  • 1970s-Today: As African Americans continued to move out of agriculture and into other industries, there was a shortage of labor in the fields. Immigrants, primarily from Latin America, began to work in the fields. Today, most farm workers are immigrants from Latin America, and it’s calculated that up to 75% of them are undocumented. The vast majority of our nation’s farm workers are from Mexico and Central America, although many African Americans and immigrants from other regions of the world (particularly Asia) continue to work in the fields.
  • Today: H-2A seasonal guest workers currently provide about 3% of the agricultural workforce of the US, and they are exploited much like the Bracero workers of the 1940s-1960s. Today’s guest workers are denied one of the most fundamental rights offered by American society: the right to change jobs. Because they are brought over by a specific employer and then tied to them, workers are vulnerable to abuse and live in fear of reporting injustices. These workers are exploited on both sides of the border—paying exorbitant rates to unregulated hiring agencies in their home country and arriving deeply in debt to a country where they are often underpaid.

This draft Timeline prepared by RMSA Health and Justice Coordinator Joseluis M. Ortiz y Muniz, with gratitude for source materials from:
Thomas Spaulding, Holy Cow! Advisors, November 2019 Biodynamic Conference Presentation
Racial Equity Institute (www.racialequityinstitute.com)
Youth and Young Adult Network of the National Farm Worker Ministry (www.nfwm-yaya.org)
In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process, A. Leon Higgenbotham, Jr., Oxford Univ. Press, 1978

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