As Congress now debates reforming and expanding the foreign guest worker program, Docurama has released H2 Worker, Stephanie Black's 1990 exposé on the conditions experienced by Caribbean, mostly Jamaican and exclusively male, guest workers on Florida sugarcane plantations. The "H-2" guest worker program began in 1943 to provide cheap, docile, seasonal labor to the American sugar industry. By 1990, the year Black's H2 Worker was released, 10,000 Caribbean men were working up to six months each year in the fields of Florida hand-cutting sugarcane. Following release of this exposé and a fifty-one million dollar class action judgment for compensation for underpayment of wages (reversed on appeal), the American sugar industry converted to mechanized harvesting, but the H-2 program has continued to expand to well over 100,000 guest workers in other fields ranging from tobacco and apple harvesting, to sheep herding and crab shucking, to carnival labor and waitressing.
Black and a small all-female crew clandestinely filmed in and around the Florida sugar plantations for two years, evading corporate security and unfriendly local police to slip into the fields, barracks, and mess halls of the workers. Black blends footage of her subjects at work and at rest with voiceover from letters exchanged between the men and their wives back home, along with interviews with some of the workers, representatives of the sugar industry, the Department of Labor, lobbyists, and Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley.
The portrait that emerges is one of men in desperate economic straits who are both pleased to have the work and exasperated with rampant underpayment by the sugar industry. The men should be earning $5.22 per hour (about $9/hr. in 2009 dollars) before deductions for lodging, food, travel and compulsory savings, but are in fact grossing as little as $2 per hour because their employers are under-counting hours and paying piece rates. The working conditions are harsh with each man required to cut one ton of sugarcane per hour, and no compensation for wages lost due to injury. Workers who complain openly are promptly sent back to Jamaica and blacklisted from participating in the guest worker program in the future. With 14 applicants for every spot in the H-2 program, there's no shortage of willing labor.
H2 Worker generally has very good production values despite an obvious extreme economy of 16mm footage. Given the guerrilla nature of the filmmaking, the cinematography by Maryse Alberti is outstanding. Also superb is the soundtrack, especially the title track by Jamaican dub poet Mutabaruka. The one notable weakness in the production is a sloppiness in how the information is presented. For example, one intertitle informs viewers that 25% of the workers' pay is deducted for compulsory savings and that "23% of this deduction" is eventually given back to the men when they return home, but in fact, this isn't correct: 92% of this deduction is returned, not 23%.
H2 Worker looks about as good as it can given the limits of 16mm guerrilla filmmaking. The images are often dark, colors are muted, and detail is so-so, but the image is clean and free of damage.
The 2.0 audio is adequate, again given the limits of the original recording conditions, though the inclusion of English subtitles (only Spanish are provided) would have been helpful due to the strong Jamaican and southern accents of many of the interviewees.
Extras include a 19-minute update on the guest worker program which is directed by Black, but which lacks the quality of filmmaking provided in H2 Worker. Despite poor video and sound, the short is informative. Somewhat less helpful is the feature-length filmmaker's commentary in which Black makes the common error of lapsing into silence as she listens to the documentary's dialogue, interjecting responsive comments only during the lulls. Also included is the one-minute poetic short More than Luck, about a homeless immigrant on the streets of New York City, and a trailer for Black's 2001 documentary Life and Debt.
Although H2 Worker lacks the depth and power of essential classic workers' documentaries like Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA (1971) and American Dream (1990), it offers an engaging snapshot of conditions for guest workers at a particular place and time in American history. Viewers interested in a more contemporary perspective on the H-2 program, should also see On the Other Side (2007) about Jamaican guest workers in the tobacco fields of Massachusetts.