Seeds of conflict in a salad bowl?

Americans ought to look into their own salad bowl, and ask if the crisp lettuce they enjoy has been grown under conditions conducive to conflict or to peace.

These thoughts are prompted by a report on a lawsuit undertaken by some farmwork-ers in South Bay, Fla., against the US secretary of labor for permitting foreign workers to be imported under contract to pick lettuce, and thus depriving them of badly needed jobs.

On the south side of Lake Okeechobee, South Bay sits in an area given over to agribusiness. Miles and miles of sugar cane stretch as far as the eye can see, interspersed with miles and miles of truck farming. Here, migrant farmworkers - American blacks, Chicanos, Haitians, Central Americans - live under conditions of poverty and poor housing which have been described as the worst in the nation , and which led to the filming of the documentary ''Harvest of Shame.'' Because of mechanization, the influx of immigrants, and the poor economy, there is an oversupply of workers, 5 to every 1 job.

Until recently, some of the farmworkers could count on five months' work picking lettuce. But last fall the workers learned to their dismay and anger that the growers had obtained permission from the Department of Labor for the importation of 202 foreign workers under H-2 visas. Such visas can only be obtained if the Department of Labor certifies that the job has been advertised nationally, that no United States workers are available for the job, that housing will be provided, and that fair labor practices are observed.

These regulations are generally observed more in the breach than the practice. In the case of the lettuce workers the job was first advertised as demanding three years' experience, was advertised only in Florida, and did not offer anything but barracks housing and a low hourly rate. Although the Department of Labor insisted that the experience requirement be modified, it granted the certification two weeks before the workers were due to arrive. While the US has the largest pool of experienced lettuce workers in the world, there was no time, nor effort made, to reach the unemployed.

The H-2 program offers certain obvious advantages to US employers. The foreign workers are docile. If they raise any questions, the employers can complain that they have refused to work, and after three such complaints, can send them home. They do not have to be paid social security, unemployment compensation, or workmen's compensation. Since only men are imported, they can be housed in rough barracks, not family unit apartments, and the employer is spared all the trouble of health care and recreation for women and children. There is no need to improve living conditions in order to attract workers. The sending country often advances the transportation money, so he need not risk putting it out in advance.

To most fair-minded citizens, however, the H-2 program seems like a form of indentured slavery and a threat to the general welfare of working-class people. While employers have recourse to contract labor, the ability of workers to organize for their rights is undercut and the long-range forecast for the amelioration of the shocking conditions under which migrant laborers work is further clouded. The fact that the foreign workers take jobs from Americans means that the public cost of welfare, food stamps, and lost tax dollars for all of them is increased.

It is sometimes argued that H-2 is of benefit to the sending country, and therefore a form of foreign aid. But studies have shown that in the long run the foreign workers do not appear to accumulate enough money to buy land or tools or otherwise become more productive in the country of origin.

Although the current regulations concerning H-2 are constantly flouted, they have served to hold the influx of H-2 workers to 35,000 a year. The vast majority of farm labor jobs are filled by migrant workers residing in the US. Some of these are undocumented persons from Mexico and Central America. The Simpson-Mazzoli Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1982, now before Congress, attempts to stem the flow of illegal workers from Mexico by penalizing their employers. The employers have fought back by insisting that the regulations governing H-2 be relaxed. In effect they have said, ''Give us undocumented workers whom we can exploit or, if you take them away, give us contract foreign labor.''

Their campaign has been successful and the H-2 program has been changed under the pending legislation to permit as many as 500,000 foreign workers to be brought in each year. Many see this as a backdoor revival of the old and discredited ''bracero'' program.

In the long run, it is maldistribution of resources between nations that leads to illegal migration, to unrest, and to conflict. In a complex situation, the expansion of the H-2 program seems a backward step. If the new law is passed as it stands, there will be an increased need for vigilance that foreign workers are not exploited and Americans robbed of their jobs. And we will all have added cause to look into our salad bowls and ask ourselves if they contain the seeds of conflict. For in an interdependent world, the conditions under which our lettuce is picked can affect us in ways that we can hardly guess.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.