The work of harvesting sugarcane is grueling—even worse than picking cotton. With a knife, a cutter slices the cane stalk as close to the ground as possible. Standing in wet, soft muck soil, he chops off the leaves and the top of the stalk, tossing the cane into a pile. He does this thousands of times a day—stooping, cutting, standing, cutting, stacking, stooping. To guard against the sharp leaves and the swinging knife, cutters wear aluminum shields on their wrists and legs, as well as many layers, even in the hot Florida sun.

Given those conditions, sugar growers should have a hard time attracting workers. Indeed, it did not take long for the new sugar industry to get a bad name among the African-American migrant workers in the South, who soon learned to steer clear of cane fields in favor of fruits and vegetables.

By the 1930s, Big Sugar had a labor problem, and so it turned where Big Business often turns: Big Government. The New Deal operated as corporate welfare in many ways, but nowhere did it serve the exploitative purposes of big business as thoroughly as in the sugarcane fields of south Florida. Most objectionable—and most relevant to today’s policy debates—was how FDR and Big Sugar teamed up to use open borders and guest-worker programs to subvert the free market.

The sugar industry in America has never really operated in a free market. Cane sugar in Florida wouldn’t exist if the state government hadn’t drained the Everglades. It would disappear if the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t permanently alter the landscape and manage it at taxpayer expense to expose the muck soil and keep the water level just right for the growers.

Washington also provides subsidies to all sugar farmers in the form of loans collateralized by sugar—about 18 cents per pound. The world price of sugar is usually around 10 cents per pound or less, but the federal government also drastically limits sugar imports, ensuring a domestic price of about twice that. Uncle Sam also subsidizes private sugar storage facilities.

It is only fitting then that the federal government would subsidize Big Sugar’s labor needs. The nature of the work in the cane fields was only half the downside of cutting cane. The companies required their cutters to live in prison-like barracks that reeked of sweat and urine and eat sub-par food, according to many accounts. The deceptive pay practices yielded a federal investigation into U.S. Sugar.

Unsurprisingly, workers in Florida and the Deep South soon wanted nothing to do with cane fields. By 1932, the horrors of cane cutting were so well known that when U.S. Sugar advertised for 100 cutters in Fort Lauderdale, only two men applied. A better public-relations campaign would be needed, and so FDR’s New Deal provided it.

The United States Employment Service went far and wide advertising the dire need for sugar-field workers—essentially doing the sugar growers’ PR on the taxpayer dime. This didn’t work either.
In the spring of 1943, while so many American men were off at war, Big Sugar declared there was a labor shortage. In Florida, however, a national wartime ban on “pleasure driving” had shut down race tracks, surely leaving some unemployed behind. Harry McAlpin reported in the Chicago Defender, “the figures of one government agency show that 45,000 [farm] workers are now available in [Florida]—but not at the exploitation wages big farmers want to pay.”

The cane fields of South Florida were the 1940s version of “jobs Americans won’t do.” The work itself is grueling, dangerous, and monotonous, and very little at the time could be done to change that. But danger, monotony, and difficulty are not sufficient to make a job unfillable. Alaska crab fishermen, U.S. Marines, international spies, Hollywood stuntmen all have jobs that satisfy at least two of those conditions. These employers, therefore, are forced to make the jobs attractive.

Alaska crab fishermen sometimes work 20 hours a day on the icy decks of big iron boats tossing around in the frigid Bering Sea. It is terrifying, lonely, exhausting, and potentially deadly work. To make it worth the deckhands’ while, ship operators typically split the profits evenly with all their employees. This means that in one month, a fisherman could pull in tens of thousands of dollars.

The labor market requires that employers trying to fill harsh jobs offer recruits good pay or other bonuses. But big government’s specialty is distorting market conditions, frequently in the favor of big business.

Enter Franklin Roosevelt’s guest-worker program. Through an intergovernmental agreement on March 16, 1943, Roosevelt launched what later became the British West Indies Program (BWI). This opened the gates to farm workers from Jamaica, the Bahamas, and other Caribbean isles.

But FDR’s plan was not just about opening the borders to these workers. Under FDR’s BWI program, the federal government became an active partner with the sugar growers. Historian David McCally writes, “Between 1943 and 1947, the United States government played a direct role in negotiating employment contracts for offshore laborers and paid the cost of round-trip transportation for all workers between their homes and the United States.”

Once again, Big Sugar was getting by on Big-Government largesse, but Uncle Sam’s help in this situation was not merely in footing the boat fare for the cane cutters. Roosevelt’s BWI program—and the guest-worker program that it grew into—provided sugar growers with the ideal worker.
One promotional film by the Florida Sugar Cane League claims, “To watch a West Indian wield a cane knife is to see a centuries-old art,” reports Alec Wilkinson, author of Big Sugar. The clear implication was that West Indian workers are ideal for cutting cane because of some innate skill. In truth, they are the model cane workers because a workforce constantly under threat of deportation is a docile workforce.

West Indian laborers entering Florida under these immigration programs were even more beholden to their employers than were the black field hands of the decades before. Their vulnerability at the hands of their bosses extended far beyond the typical disadvantages a foreigner suffers in a new land. The BWI cane cutter was allowed into the country explicitly to perform one job. This meant that if his boss didn’t like him, he could send the worker out of the country.

Wilkinson writes that a sugar boss in the field who thought one cutter was working too slowly could “check him out”—send him back to his barracks with no wages for the day. If one worker was checked out three times in one season, the sugar farmer would send him back to his home country. If this was before the midpoint of the cane-cutting season, the worker himself was obligated, by the terms of his contract, to pay his roundtrip fare.

This advantage to the farmers of hiring temporary foreign workers was no accident. It was deliberate. In 1940, one grower wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that if Washington were to help them find labor, the Bahamas would be a far better source than either the U.S. or its territory Puerto Rico. “The vast difference between the Bahama Island labor and domestic, including Puerto Rican,” wrote the farmer, “is that labor transported from the Bahama Islands can be deported and sent home, if it does not work, which cannot be done in the instance of labor from domestic United States or Puerto Rico.”

This moment of brutal honesty by a sugar farmer in the months before World War II gives us insight into the mind of shrewd employers throughout the decades. If your worker’s visa limits him to working for you, you become, in effect, the government.

A typical employer in a free market has only the power to stop paying his worker or possibly sue him if he doesn’t perform promised services. But under guest-worker programs, the employer gains the power of deportation.

In recognition of the fact that the employer/guest-worker relationship exists outside of the free market, the federal government provides special protection for these guest workers, guaranteeing adequate housing, food, and other conditions. In the rest of the economy, the enforcement mechanism for the worker’s needs is called freedom of movement. In a free market, a dissatisfied worker can walk away from a job. In the 20th-century indentured servitude of the cane fields, no such freedom existed, dragging Big Government even deeper into the realm of business.

In 1982, workers walked off the sugar field when their bosses told them the wage they would pay for a row of sugar that day. The price wasn’t worth their sweat and blood, they surmised. The next day, law enforcement greeted the workers outside their barracks, and 300 cutters were soon deported. Future cane cutters didn’t try to haggle much over wages.

Cutting sugarcane in Florida was a job Americans wouldn’t do. But that is true only when you take into account the whole package of cane-cutting employment. What Americans wouldn’t do was subject themselves to slavery, where not only their wages but their right to hold any job in America was dependent on remaining in the good graces of the boss, on whom they also depended for food and shelter.
George W. Bush’s guest-worker program will surely not be identical to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s. But Bush talks of a plan “to match willing foreign workers with willing U.S. employers.” These workers would be here temporarily, and they would be here to work in one specific job. They would be powerless vis-à-vis their employers. That would be near indentured servitude—a job Americans won’t do.

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Timothy P. Carney is author of The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money, forthcoming from Wiley.