Is Farm Work Funny, Mr. Colbert?

Stephen Colbert’s testimony may have gotten a negative reception, but it certainly appears to have drawn attention to the plight of migrant farm workers, writes Eric Alterman.

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Migrant farm workers thin budding lettuce crops in San Luis, AZ. (AP/Paul Connors)
Migrant farm workers thin budding lettuce crops in San Luis, AZ. (AP/Paul Connors)

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) says he thinks it’s weird that Democrats have “time to bring a comedian to Congress but they don’t have time to end the uncertainty by extending the tax cuts." It’s an amazing statement when you think about it even for a second. After all, is it possible that the tax cut issue is not really time? In fact, is there any way to interpret Stephen Colbert’s appearance before the House Judiciary subcommittee on his experience as an entertainer-turned-migrant worker as having anything at all, however remotely, to do with extending tax cuts for Americans making $250,000 or more a year? (And couldn’t the alleged “uncertainty” be dispelled with a clear, uncomplicated, “You had your party for the past decade. Now get lost.”)

Until I heard Boehner on “The Daily Show” I thought the silliest statement he would be able to come up with was in response to Chris Wallace’s question as to whether he was aware that “a number of top economists say what we need is more economic stimulus.” He replied, “Well, I don’t need to see GDP numbers or to listen to economists. All I need to do is listen to the American people, because they’ve been asking the question now for 18 months, ‘Where are the jobs?’”

But the orange-colored man continues to top himself, and I will know better than to underestimate him again.

The reaction to Colbert’s appearance has been largely negative—just as it was when he spoke to the White House Correspondents’ dinner. Washington does not like this character who captures the city so well—at least not in person. Like Mr. Boehner, but more coherently, committee members appeared to believe that the issue of hearing guests was more important than the conditions of farm workers.

Leslie Savan notes in The Nation that during the question-and-answer period:

Colbert transformed the subcommittee’s Repubs into straight men. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) asked, ‘Does one day in the field make you an expert witness?’ Colbert: ‘I believe that one day of me studying anything makes me an expert.’ Did he know many of the workers he toiled with were illegal? ‘I didn’t ask them for their papers, though I had a strong urge to.’ And so on, right through volunteering, ‘I endorse all Republican policies without question.’

But asked by Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), "Why, of all the things you could testify about, did you choose this issue?" Colbert decided to get serious. He stepped out of pundit character to respond:

I like talking about people who don’t have any power and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights as a result. But yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. […] Migrant workers suffer and have no rights.

It’s no surprise that most pundits and politicians would prefer not to discuss migrant workers or that a Fox News anchor—whom I also happened to catch on “The Daily Show”—would complain about this outrageous waste of time and expense before cutting to a story about Lindsey Lohan.

I dunno. Is it perhaps a coincidence that I got 2,250 Google News hits for the words “farm workers” when I searched at 8:41 Tuesday morning? I’m pretty sure that’s about 2,349 or so more than there would have been without Colbert’s appearance. The last time the media engaged themselves in the issue at all was back in July when Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, appeared on Colbert to issue the original Take Our Jobs challenge.

I did a little research for a column back then, thinking I would use the show as my hook. I discovered “Farm labor consistently makes the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ top ten list of the nation’s most dangerous jobs,” while at the same time, “Farm workers are excluded from federal overtime provisions, and small farms don’t even have to pay the minimum wage. Fifteen states don’t require farm labor to be covered by workers compensation laws.”

What’s more, child labor is common. Human Rights Watch released a report documenting children as young as six working in fields. “For too many of these children, farmwork means an early end to childhood, long hours at exploitative wages, and risk to their health and sometimes their lives,” the report says. It found children, many of whom are migrants, working for less than minimum wage and for 10 or more hours each day.

Congress is doing less than zero about these conditions either through immigration or labor law reform. For at least 10 years various pieces of legislation have been introduced in both houses of Congress to apply the same age and hour restrictions to children working in agriculture that already apply to other industries. Not one has ever reached a vote, much less passed and been signed into law.

Meanwhile, here are a few other facts about farm workers’ lives I discovered.

Nearly three-quarters of U.S. farmworkers earn less than $10,000 per year and three out of five farmworker families have incomes below the poverty level, according to the most recent findings of the National Agricultural Workers Survey.

In addition to low wages, farmworkers rarely have access to workers compensation, occupational rehabilitation, or disability compensation benefits. Only 12 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands provide farmworkers with workers compensation to the same degree as other workers. Farmworker coverage is optional in 13 other states but not required by state law.

Even though many farmworkers fit eligibility profiles for programs such as Medicaid and food stamps very few are able to secure these benefits. Migrant health centers estimate that less than 12 percent of their revenues are derived from Medicaid, and it is believed that fewer than 25 percent of eligible farmworkers receive food stamps.

Migrant farmworkers’ health status is at the same standard of most Third World nations, while the country in which they work, the United States, is one of the richest nations on earth. Unsanitary working and housing conditions make farmworkers vulnerable to health conditions no longer considered to be threats to the general public.

Poverty, frequent mobility, low literacy, language, and cultural and logistic barriers impede farmworkers’ access to social services and cost-effective primary health care. Economic conditions make farmworkers reluctant to miss work in order to seek health services. Farmworkers are not protected by sick leave, and they risk losing their jobs if they miss a day of work.

These circumstances cause farmworkers to postpone seeking health care unless their condition becomes so severe that they cannot work. At this point, many farmworkers must rely on expensive emergency room care for their health care needs. Migrant health centers provide accessible care for farmworkers, but existing centers have the capacity to serve fewer than 20 percent of the nation’s farmworkers.

Of course, I’m doing this column today because I didn’t do it when I first thought of it. There’s always something more important than the plight of America’s farm workers—especially child farm workers. Damn that comedian Stephen Colbert for forcing us to face up to ourselves—or for trying.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His "Altercation" blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

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