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.

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