Wednesday, May 13, 2009

H2 Worker: Jamaican Migrants in America

By David Luhrssen
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Most Americans give little thought to where our food comes from. Maybe itís the instinctive reaction of averting oneís eyes from horror? And the assembly line slaughter of cows, pigs and chickens, and the factories producing unhealthy, junk food corn fructose, arenít the only sins of American agribusiness.

Stephanie Blackís award-winning 1990 documentary H2 Worker (out now on DVD) is a clear-eyed, unhysterical expose of what went on inside Florida's sprawling sugar cane farms. (An update would be interesting.) Despite all denials, the owners, a slender handful of fat corporations, seemed determined to squeeze every penny (and ounce of sweat) from their work force, thousands of Jamaicans granted an H-2 temporary guest worker visa for six months each year. Itís backbreaking, injurious work, cutting seven-foot cane stalks with machetes. Conditions in the housing barracks are Spartan at best. And worst of all, the workers are perpetually shortchanged in pay. But given the endemic poverty of their island, caused in part by policies made in capitals far away, they come every season to cut cane and send a few dollars home.

H2 Worker touches on the history of Florida sugar. Until the mid-1940s, the growers used African Americans in near slavery conditions until a federal investigation forced a shift. In 1943 Bahamian guest workers began arriving as part of Britainís contribution to Allied victory in World War II. Over time, Jamaica became the major supplier of cheap labor.

The contrast between the claims of corporate executives, the footage from the plantations and the complaints of the workers tells H2 Worker's story with minimal editorializing. Reggae performer Mutabaruka provides the music

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