The film is a document of the exploitation of a particular set of workers. There can never be enough reminders of the continuing battle for fairness and the dignity of honest work.
Movie Grade: B
DVD Grade: B+
H2 Worker shared the Grand Jury prize and won the Documentary Cinematography Award for Maryse Alberti at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990.†The film uses a guerilla film style in the cane fields and around the workers' barracks to reveal the not-so-sweet-side of the systematic exploitation of Caribbean laborers by the Florida sugar industry from World War II through the 1990s. In our current times, there is strong debate over the guest worker provisions of immigration legislation. Sugar cane cutters have been replaced by mechanical harvesters in the last two decades, but guest worker programs now operate in agriculture, serivce and other industries. There is nothing new in how our foreign worker program continues to benefit business at the expense of the underpaid worker. The legal workers occupy an ambiguous, under-reported place between American labor and illegal immigrant labor.
This documentary told the story of men named for their special temporary guestwork "H2" visas. They lived and worked in conditions reminiscent of the days of slavery on sugar plantations: overcrowded housing, bare subsistence, little treatment for frequent on-the-job injuries, low wages, and threats of deportation if the many rules are not followed.
Objective analyis includes testimony from representatives of the sugar companies and the U.S. Department of Labor, as well as U.S. congressmen and Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley. Historical analysis combines archival footage and the story of 80-year-old Samuel Manston, who escaped the cane fields at the time of the peonage indictments in 1942, when the U.S. Sugar Cane Corporation was indicted for conspiracy to enslave black American workers. Archival footage also presents Cesar Chavez speaking on the effects of H2 Workers on wages and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor extol the benefits of Bahamian workers in the Allied efforts in the war.
Extensive interviews and letters tell a tale which is painful to experience. Only the humanity of the men looking to better their lives and finding little of the luxuries of life that Americans take for granted. The thick accents of some of the interviewees make for difficult listening and oddly there is only Spanish language subtitles.
In 1992, a class action suit found sugar can companies guilty of cheating the workers and awarding over 50 million dollars in back pay. An Appellate court reversed the findings. But the light shining on their activities caused the sugar companies to switch to mechanical harvesters.
The film now serves as document of a time that has changed in fact, but remains in essence. The exploitation of the many less fortunate for the benefit of the few more fortunate is a continuing theme in many countries, but somehow specifically American. The odd fact is here the exploitation takes place in a nearly clandestine fashion within our own borders, because that is where the sugar cane is located. It is quite typical to see the sugar fat cats, who draw massive government subsidies, extol the high quality of the servitude they have created.
Director Stephanie Black directed†Africa Unite: Bob Marleyís 60th Birthday, which documented the celebration event in Ethiopia. She has directed numerous documentary and live-action segments for PBS (including segments for†Sesame Street) and cable television (including the 2005 series†Being Bobby Brown). Her film†Life and Debt†depicts the impact of globalization on Jamaica.
* Update on the Guest Worker Program (19m)
* Filmmaker Audio Commentary by Stephanie Black
* Short Film:†More than Luck
* Trailer:†Life and Debt
* Spanish Subtitles