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Raising Families, Building Homes

Every autumn, nearly ten thousand men travel to the US from Jamaica, Barbados, Dominica, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent, to pick apples in the Northeast and cut sugar cane in south Florida. Jamaica supplies 100% of the foreign labor for the apple harvest and 80% of the foreign labor for the sugar harvest. In South Florida, these men live and work five to six months without their families, in camps surrounded by cane fields, earning between three and four thousand US dollars apiece. They constitute the largest legal alien labor force in the US today.

Begun during World War II, the British West Indian (BWI) Temporary Alien Labor Program and the Mexican Barcero program were designed to compensate for shortages of agricultural labor resulting from the war. Although domestic labor pressured the termination of the Bracero program in 1964, US apple and sugar growers continue to use British West Indians to harvest their crops.

Backgrounds of the Jamaican Migrants

The willingness and ability of the workers to participate in this program arise from their situation in Jamaica. They are, by and large, peasants. When not cutting cane or picking apples in the US, they farm two or three acres of land at home, planting a wide variety of cash and subsistence crops and raising a few head of livestock. They also engage in a variety of other economic activities. Young, usually first entering the US in their early twenties, they participate in the program when their children are being born and their households are expanding. At least two other households - those containing "outside" children they have had in previous unions and those of their parents - usually rely on them for remittances. In turn, while migrants are away, their dependents care for their fields, livestock, and other economic concerns. These conditions make it possible for Jamaican peasants to participate in the program, and influence how they spend their money upon their return.,/P>

Migrant Spending Behaviors

Contrary to assertions by government and industry sources both in the US and the Caribbean, the BWI program does not generally stimulate development in the Jamaican countryside. One finds few significant differences between populations which include migrants and those that do not. Most migrants do not use their US earnings to establish businesses or increase agricultural production in the area. Such investments would be risky, costly, or both, and migrants' savings are easily absorbed by their growing households and obligations to other households.

With steady incomes for the first time in their lives, with access to inexpensive US goods, and with growing households in Jamaica, the migrants spend around half of their gross earnings on consumer goods in the US communities near the labor camps. Merchants in downtown Belle Glade, a commercial center servicing most of the south Florida sugar camps, estimate that roughly 80-100% of their business depends on West Indians. Virtually all the Jamaicans buy clothes and shoes, and most buy small appliances such as tape players and jewelry. At home, these highly visible and audible goods add prestige to an otherwise drab subsistence existence, nourishing the desire of other Jamaicans to participate in the program. Workers also spend around 10% of their earnings on food to supplement labor camp food. The program is set up so that 23% workers' earnings is sent to Jamaica and kept in an interest-free savings account, generating around five million US dollars in foreign exchange for the Jamaican government annually. Finally, workers remit around one quarter of their earnings, usually to their wives, girlfriends, and mothers. The workers also carry back some earnings, although these sums are rarely more than a few hundred dollars.

The cash the workers carry back and that in compulsory savings accounts is used primarily to construct and expand houses, to purchase house-and-garden plots and livestock, to keep agricultural production stable, and to meet household expenses. With the exception of house construction (upon which most savings are spent), these expenditures are attempts to assure the survival and reproduction of the household.

Despite the tendency to divert US earnings into house construction, there exist few differences between migrants and non-migrants in terms of housing. The only major difference is that 93% of the migrants' homes arc constructed out of more expensive, sturdier, and more prestigious concrete blocks (instead of wood), while only 73% of the non-migrants' homes boast such structurally sound foundations. But with regard to terms of tenure, state of completion, house size, electricity, and plumbing, the houses are similar for both groups.


Overwhelmingly, the recipients of remittances are women. The first most common group of recipients are the migrants' wives and girlfriends and the second most common group are the migrants' mothers. Mothers receive around half as much in remittances as wives and girlfriends, suggesting that the cultivation of strong mother-son bonds pays off. With this fact in mind, wives and girlfriends of the migrants tend to use remittances to keep their children healthy, happy and upwardly mobile by investing in stable agricultural production and their children's education.

Keeping agricultural output stable requires that remittance recipients hire day laborers. This generates temporary employment in the Jamaican countryside and thus spreads the benefits of remittances. These day laborers come from peasant households in the same vicinity, and the wages they receive help them meet their own farming expenses.

Thus, the principal impact of the labor program is its role in the maintenance, both physically and socially, of the Jamaican peasantry. Although a few migrants accumulated capital, expanded farms and started transportation or merchandizing businesses, the vast majority of these earnings are used for temporary or consumption-oriented improvements.

Capital accumulation is only high among those migrants who have worked for four or more seasons. They have acquired a few acres of land, livestock, a rum shop, or a car or truck which is the basis of a transport business. Migrants who participate four or more seasons, however, are not common. US apple and sugar companies screen workers after their third season; over 60% are never requested to return.


Earnings tend to reinforce pre-existing social relations between peasant households in Jamaica - social relations which bind households to one another for economic and social security, which spread income over diffuse social networks, but which simultaneously undermine the migrant's ability to save, consolidate wealth, or accumulate the capital necessary to expand the farm or start a business. The generation of employment with remittances, while beneficial, ultimately serves to spread this income further by helping day-laborers maintain their own subsistence levels.

Because it does not allow workers to participate on a long-term basis, the BWI program raises expectations and expands "needs" while falling short of providing the means to maintain higher standards of living independent of participation in the program.

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