Fields of dreams

Basic labor rights elude farmworkers

  • "Roberto," a farmworker, shows a tour attendee how to pick strawberries.

    Stephanie Paige Ogburn

At a Watsonville, Calif., strawberry field, a gaggle of the agriculturally curious -- a state representative's aide, an anthropologist, a food service company employee -- gathered around Ann Lopez, whose voice gained intensity as she careened through a farm worker's tale of woe: pesticide exposure, low wages, backbreaking labor.

Lopez, a Santa Cruz-based activist and academic, was leading one of the "Farmworker Reality Tours" that her nonprofit, the Center for Farmworker Families, hosts about five times a year. Lopez is on an evangelist's mission: to show and tell everyone she meets about the plight of Mexican migrants who toil in California fields.

"I think the only way it's going to change," Lopez said, "is if the public says, 'No more.' "

Even in California, a pro-labor state brimming with principled foodies, farmers are mostly adored and farmworkers ignored. Just 13 states -- including six in the West -- require employers to offer worker's compensation, and less than half protect farmworkers' right to form unions, guaranteed to most other laborers. Lopez hopes increased awareness will make a difference, but as recent attempts to reform labor laws show, fixing a system that relies on cheap labor to turn a profit is not easy.

On a typical day, California strawberry pickers, paid in part by the size of their harvest, perform a stoop-shouldered race down plastic-covered rows, picking and packing fruit. "Roberto," one of the workers on the tour, left his farm in Jalisco 12 years ago to work in Watsonville because he couldn't find a steady job in Mexico. He now earns about $16,000 a year.

Tour-goers began by picking strawberries. The fruit was organic, to prevent chemical exposure; true reality could be a little too dangerous. But 30 minutes of bending, stooping and twisting berries off the stem got the point across.

Next, the group squeezed into Roberto's one-bedroom house, four at a time, through a vestibule serving as a kitchen-cum-laundry room. Stepping past a tiny living room, they peered into a bedroom stuffed with three beds and a handful of skinny children. Rent runs $850 a month, Roberto says.

Though their hardships are well chronicled, farmworkers are still excluded from labor laws guaranteeing rights most workers take for granted. The two major federal laws passed in the 1930s governing overtime and collective bargaining left out agricultural workers to gain Southern votes. (Southern congressmen didn't want black farmworkers given the same rights as whites.) But in the '60s, farmworkers were guaranteed minimum wage, and in 1975, California passed the most progressive agricultural labor law in the country, giving workers collective bargaining rights. Over time, many legal migrants found better jobs, and farmworker unions shrank in size and power. Now, undocumented immigrants -- about 50 to 75 percent of the agricultural workforce nationwide -- take the seasonal, low-wage work. They are hesitant to assert the rights they do have, and often answer to middlemen who can avoid many labor laws.

Though California is one of just four states to offer agricultural laborers any overtime, they can only receive it after a six-day, 60-hour week. Gov. Schwarzenegger recently vetoed a bill requiring extra compensation after a 40-hour week, claiming it would overly burden farms. The work's seasonal nature justifies the weaker law, he said.

With few exceptions, large and small, organic and conventional farms all say paying the state's 650,000 agricultural laborers a truly just wage is more than they can afford. Phil Martin, an agricultural economist at the University of California-Davis, attributes this, in part, to market forces and the high labor costs associated with specialty crops like grapes and berries that require hand weeding, picking or pruning.

"Farmers usually can't determine what the price of the crop is -- the markets determine that," Martin says. "Farmers will usually say (labor is) their only controllable expense."

Even Northern California's famed Full Belly Farm, often held up as a model of sustainability, and one of few farms that strives to pay workers a living wage, opposed the overtime bill, saying it would force many farms to pay less hourly to compensate for overtime wages. "In effect, the new law would turn the job into a minimum-wage job," Judith Redmond, a manager at the farm, wrote in a newsletter to customers.

As the reality tour progressed, attendees alternately hissed at Driscoll's Berries, labor contractors and NAFTA, which allowed subsidized U.S. corn to flood the Mexican marketplace, undercutting many family farms. The exhortations -- by Lopez and members of Human Agenda, a human rights group -- were familiar: Despise NAFTA. Support immigration reform. Write your senator.

Some in Congress have already responded. In 2009, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., reintroduced the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, which would provide a path to legal status for workers who have lived in the U.S. for at least two years, and allow farmers to bring guest workers in on temporary visas. Though workers, employers and politicians on both sides of the aisle support the bill, it's languished in Congress for nearly as long as Roberto has been picking strawberries. Immigration reform -- and agricultural labor rights -- are still a long time coming.

Anonymous says:
Nov 02, 2010 03:58 PM
Thank you for writing this article. Illigal immigrants are being and have been demonized too long and too much, as we have seen with Arizon's recent and overtly racist legislation. While the political right would have the public believe that the so-called immigration problem stems from so-called criminals entering the country, few discuss the historical precedents that have led to this situation, such as the Bracero Program implemented from 1942 to 1964, and the corporations who are dependant upon a cheap and seasonally expendible workforce in order to maximize their profits and minimize their costs.

Immigrants working in agricultural industries are probably the most vulnerable group of people in modern American society. They have no recourse to the few social and legal amenities that the United States offers, such as public education, food stamps, and public representation in criminal cases. Is it going too far to say that agribusiness reliance upon a politically unrepresented and powerless segment of society is a modern system of slavery? What social and political recourse do these human beings have when they are unsafely exposed to agrichemicals and paid peanuts for keeping food on the dinner tables throughout America?

All of us need to be aware of these injustices when we take a bite of salad and demand both personal responsibility and corporate responsibility for allowing and having created such an unjust social situation
Anonymous says:
Nov 04, 2010 10:35 AM
Could you tell us which are the six states in the West that do not require worker's comp and which states in the West do not have labor laws allowing organizing of farm workers. What would be the specific actions that would help this situation, given the almost free reign we have given to importers.
Anonymous says:
Nov 04, 2010 01:23 PM
Hi Mike -- thanks for the question. The states that guarantee farm laborers workers comp are: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon. Western states that guarantee the right to organize without fear of penalty from employers are: Arizona, California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.

Until the situation of documentation and worker visas changes, however, farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented, seem unlikely to assert their power or exercise the rights they do have.

Anonymous says:
Nov 04, 2010 02:59 PM
OK, so I will talk to my state legislators about getting worker's comp extended to agricultural workers in our state.
Anonymous says:
Nov 16, 2010 11:12 PM

California, which passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, as you mention, is the only state that gives farmworkers the right to organize, protects union activity and sets out a mechanism for elections in the fields. None of the others you mention do that, and farmworkers are excluded under the National Labor Relations Act.
Anonymous says:
Nov 17, 2010 09:24 AM
Hi Miriam, based on my research the individual states I mention at different times have added organizing rights to their labor standards -- not via comprehensive laws like California's, but in various add-ons here and there to their own labor codes. If you have some evidence that indicates otherwise, however, I'd be happy to make a correction.
Anonymous says:
Nov 17, 2010 05:22 PM
I've written a lot about farmworkers, and talked extensively to labor lawyers and organizers. I've never come across provisions in other states, so I'd be very interested in knowing what they are. Can you provide any specifics? I can't exactly prove a negative (that something I don't know the details on doesn't exist ..), but I'm quite surprised, particularly since Arizona, for example, is a right to work state, not exactly known as a labor-friendly environment. I'd be interested in any details about what your research has shown that suggests there are organizing protections for farmworkers in those states.
Anonymous says:
Nov 18, 2010 12:06 PM
We've done some checking. It appears Washington provides full workers' compensation rights to farm workers. The only significant exceptions are minors working on their own parents' farm or u-pick arrangements.
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Dec 04, 2010 06:46 AM
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