Thibodaux, La. — Moss-draped trees line many of the back roads in this area. Muddy-water bayous split many of the towns. Just a few feet off one highway, egrets stand in the shallow waters of a swamp, oblivious to the traffic as they wait patiently to spot their next bite of food.
Here and there the tall, white columns of an old mansion stir images of the antebellum South. And here and there the houses of sugar-cane workers bring to mind news reports about the treatment of those workers by farmers.
To some extent, the negative publicity given the farmers can be traced to a fact of life in this part of Louisiana: Many of the cane workers lived, and still live, on the farm in rent-free houses. It is easy to contrast the homes of farmers and workers. The stories usually came out as mansions vs. shacks. Such contra h - // exist, would be far less evident in an urban area. A plant owner, for example, is likely to live in the suburbs, miles away from his inner-city employees.
Today, because of mechanization, there are far fewer workers living on the farms, and far less attention is given to the issue in the news media.
But critics charge, on behalf of the thousands who still work the cane fields , that exploitation persists. They point not only to continued poor housing, but to low pay and unhealthy working conditions.
Sugar-cane farmers emphasize today, as in the past, that they provide the workers' houses free. And if workers don't like the conditions or the pay, they are free to leave, they say.
Critics argue, however, that the workers are poorly paid, undereducated, and unlikely to have the opportunity to obtain training for a better-paying job. In effect, so the argument goes, the workers are trapped.
But even beyond the poverty of the workers, ''the main issue is plantationism ,'' says Sister Anne Catherine Bizalion, cofounder of the Southern Mutual Help Association (SMHA). Her organization seeks improved conditions for cane workers.
Sugar-cane workers are ''cQught Rn a vicious cycle of poverty and disease and seeing life through one person'' - the farmer, she said in an interview at the SMHA office in New Iberia. She alleges that farm workers still live under a cloud of fear: fear of loosing their free home and their way of life in the country if they displease the farmer.
But Charles Hodson, general manager of the American Sugar League (a Louisiana organization), strongly disagrees with this assessment. In contrast to the old image of the rich plantation owner, he says, sugar-cane farmers ''haven't gotten rich'' over the past decade.
''Very few of those plantation homes are occupied by sugar-cane farmers today ,'' Mr. Hodson says. ''The plantation system, or whatever, is just something nonexistent in these days and times.''
And the future of the industry is uncertain, dependent on federal protection of uncertain duration, he says. That protection is currently in the form of import quotas, which have the effect of raising the price of imported sugar so the more costly US-produced sugar can compete. A Department of Agriculture official estimates that Americans would probably pay about half as much for sugar without such protection. But the US sugar industry argues that the quotas protect jobs and income for Americans. It also points out that continued US production provides some insurance against sugar rationing in case foreign supply patterns change.
Which of these sharply contrasting pictures is correct?
From Monitor interviews with farmers and farmworkers in Lousiana's cane country, the picture that emerges is not as clear as either Sister Anne Catherine or Hodson paints it. Hues from each point of view mix in a subtle pattern, an intertwining of economic issues and human values.
Probably the least disputed point today is the condition of the workers' homes. They can be seen and described. More complex is the extent workers living in them are satisfied with their life on the farm. And in the current recession, any job may look good, especially one with free housing.
Farm workers' housing quality ranges, even according to Hodson and two sugar-cane farmers interviewed, from ''shacks'' to modest but livable houses. More are on the better end of the spectrum, they say.
Housing this reporter saw and entered in visits arranged by a former sugar-cane worker were far from adequate by most standards, butAdid HBve indoor plumbing and heating.
Oliver King, for example, lives on a sugar-cane farm near here in a house typical of the several other workers' homes near his. He and his wife and three children share two bedrooms. The kitchen has a table, three chairs, a small four-burner stove, a refrigerator and freezer, and mostly plastic dishes. The gray paint is nearly worn off the kitchen floor. In the linoleum-floored living room is a black and white television and a stereo. Mr. King owns a pickup truck and a car, and he has a telephone.
A survey done for the Jeanerette, La., Chamber of Commerce in 1978 estimated the income of a permanent cane worker at $5,881. In a more recent survey, the SMHA estimated sugar-cane workers' income for a family of six was about $6,000 to $7,000 a year. The 1981 federal poverty line for a family of six was $12,449.
Would King like to live in his own house? Yes, if it were in the country. ''I don't like the city,'' he says. Then he adds, ''I couldn't pay for it (a new house).''
In Franklin, La., Simon Daniels Sr., a sugar-cane worker a few years beyond the normal retirement age for most jobs, moved into his own house in 1976. He helped build it and is paying for it under a federal self-help housing program. This winter he earned $4.63 an hour on a cane farm. He never got any education while growing up on a farm, he says, as we talk in his living room.
For years he lived in a house with no indoor toilet. ''Our house wasn't fittin' to live in,'' says his wife, Rose. And it wasn't worth fixing up because they were never sure how long they would be allowed to stay, they both explain. ''We didn't have paneling,'' she says, with a big smile, looking around at her paneled living room.
Mr. Daniels praises Sister Anne Catherine for helping him apply for the federal program that enabled him to get his own home.
''She's partly given me my freedom. I'm going to tell you straight. I'm happy ,'' he says, slapping both hands down on the arms of his chair and smiling. ''I was intending to get my own house a long time ago. I was just spinning my wheels. I couldn't get the money.''
Past publicity about sugar-cane workers may have had some effect: Between 1969 and 1974, workers' homes with indoor plumbing increased from only about 5 percent to about 85 percent, according to surveys by the SMHA.
But there is more to the housing issue than just paneling and owning a home. Florence Ayrow, a former sugar-cane worker, lives in her own modern, brick house in Thibodaux and dreams of returning to the farm. ''I hate it here, but I had no choice,'' she says. She had to leave a sugar-cane farm in 1978 when the mill closed. ''I'm just a plain old country gal,'' she says. ''If I could go back on the farm, I'd prefer it.''
And across town, Doris Cole, who also spent years on a sugar-cane farm in worker housing, complains that her three-bedroom city apartment is too crowded for the 11 people who live in it. As we sit in her cramped living room, she says: ''Life now is better, but in a way I wish I was back there (on the farm).'' Her house there offered much more space, she says. On the other hand, town life is less isolating. She is closer to stores. And daughter Sylvia says she prefers town life where she can ''be with my friends.''
The number of cane workers is fast dwindling in Louisiana. The Department of Agriculture estimated there were about 17,000 cane workers in the state in 1971. Today the SMHA estimates the number is only about 7,000 to 8,000, of which only about 40 percent live on farms.
What changes would the SMHA like for the remaining cane workers? Sister Anne Catherine lists these:
* Wages in the $9-an-hour range.
* A banning of the use of silvex, a widely used cane pesticide that the Environmental Protection Agency has already banned for many uses as a health hazard.
* Federally enforced protective measures for use of all potentially harmful pesticides.
* Toilets in or near the cane fields.
* Better housing.
* Controls over illegal immigrants, who are displacing some American sugar-cane workers.
* Job training for cane workers being forced off their jobs due to mechanization.
* More self-help housing assistance.
''There is no pat answer,'' Sister Anne Catherine says. Currently her organization has practically no dialogue under way with sugar-cane farmers. One farmer describes her as a ''zealot'' who emphasizes the negative and none of the good aspects of cane farming.
American Sugar League spokesman Hodson dismisses as impractical her call for higher wages. ''The industry pays what it is capable of paying,'' he says. ''We're paying at least as much as other agriculture in the state.'' Wages are going up, however, as farmers find themselves competing for labor with the growing oil and shipping industry in the area, he adds.
As for worker housing, farmers ''less and less'' want the problems of it, Hodson says.
Sugar-mill operator and former cane farmer John Caldwell of Thibodaux says the move toward mechanization is crucial. He once had 50 to 60 families living and working on his 1,000-acre cane farm. But problems with ''dependable labor on time'' made mechanical planting a necessity.
''I think the future of farming - the only thing - is family farming,'' he says, looking ahead to a day of even fewer cane workers. But if federal protection of the US sugar-cane industry is removed, ''there may not be a sugar industry'' in 10 years, he adds.
In Hawaii, the second largest cane-producing state, cane workers are unionized and get union wages. But the industry there is reported to be suffering from a variety of economic problems, including high labor costs. In Florida, now the No. 1 cane state, much of the work is still done by hand by West Indians (primarily Jamaicans) at rates close to minimum wage.