As I was only able to check in a couple of minutes on Sunday, I left you with a link to an expose on farm labor in the US. I wanted to come back to that topic, though, and add a little more reflection. In particular, today a NY Times story was run which read that “Workers Claim Racial Bias in Farm’s Hiring of Immigrants“. Reading the stories back to back really makes you think about the working conditions that exist in farm labor, and which it is so easy to ignore.
Farm labor is, and has always been, hard work. Listening to stories or reading accounts of backbreaking work under the sweltering sun really makes you appreciate the tough peasant life of decades and centuries past. However, I feel like there is this unspoken assumption that today, with technological improvements and farm industrialization, our agricultural production system has moved away from such lowly manual labor – yay progress! In reality, as both “As Common As Dirt” and the NY Times piece show, we are closer to the system of exploitative, backbreaking working conditions than we care to acknowledge.
“As Common As Dirt” in particular talks about the system of farm labor contractors that has sprung up across the US, and which organize particularly workers of Mexican heritage – some illegal, some on the guest worker program. As these contractors compete in bidding processes for the contracts of a particular harvest, a race to the bottom emerges and farm labor wages are driven down below minimum wage conditions. This benefits farm owners since they can firstly minimize their labor input costs and secondly don’t have to deal with union battles, immigration agents or the paperwork involved with directly hiring their own employees.
Often, these contractors try to bring down their own labor costs by paying by quantity instead of by the hour and then altering hours on checks to keep up the appearance of paying minimum wage. While the interviewee in the article, Mr. Villalobos, got caught by labor inspectors and thus abandoned his career in contracting, the author mentions that inspections of agricultural workplaces have become increasingly uncommon – dropping by 60% between 1986 and 2008. Plus, the levies are so low that it might be cheaper to run the risk anyhow, as a farmworker advocate explained: ““If you cheat 1,000 workers a week,” he says, “you might have to pay $4,000 to one person who complains but in the meantime you save $100,000. It’s cheaper to violate the law than to follow the law.””
The article goes on to in depth discuss the enforcement situation in California, which actually has relatively advantageous labor laws for agricultural workers compared to the rest of the country. It also brings up the interesting question whether a relatively low number of citations – only 7 minimum-wage violations in 2011, for example – is evidence for a law-abiding system or one where law enforcement has effectively broken down. It then also addresses methods in which the formal wage system is circumvented by the contractors and their employees alike. Often, farm workers will work 15 to 18 hour “days” (they frequently work through the night), but contractors will only write down 9 and pay them for the overall harvest, which would translate into superhuman harvesting capabilities.
For contractors, paying by the piece guarantees that laborers will work quickly. For growers, the practice guarantees a set cost per unit. But for farmworkers, it erases the relationship between time spent on the job and the money they make—a relationship that most Americans take for granted.
And on the flip side, these systems undercut wages so much that Americans who would like to work on the fields – for a decent wage – have little to no possibility of being hired, as the NY Times article points out. It refers to Americans – mostly Black – that live near farms and claim that they are “illegally discouraged from applying for work and treated shabbily by farmers who prefer the foreigners for their malleability.” There were also arguments that racial undertones were present in the discourse, claiming that what really was being said was that “Blacks just don’t want to work.”
The farmers in turn say that they tried to hire locally at first, but that there was too little labor supply around and that Americans were quickly discouraged by the hard work and ended up quitting. One farmer was quoted as saying:
“When Jose gets on the bus to come here from Mexico he is committed to the work,” he said. “It’s like going into the military. He leaves his family at home. The work is hard, but he’s ready. A domestic wants to know: What’s the pay? What are the conditions? In these communities, I am sorry to say, there are no fathers at home, no role models for hard work. They want rewards without input.”
This attitude is problematic on so many different levels – not that I would claim that Americans have more rights to such jobs than migrants do, but I find it abominable that employers knowingly exploit the dire financial (and often) legal situation of immigrants to the point that they openly acknowledge that no “domestic” would put up with the situation.
At the same time, we are spending only a tiny fraction of our income on food. Guest worker program or not, it should be a measure of common decency to assure the pickers of our food a decent standard of living, just like they give us the means to achieve such a standard by providing us with food.
P.S. While these examples are drawn from the US, we do have similar problems in Europe, particularly in Spain with North African workers, or even in Germany with Polish asparagus pickers.