A Nation of Farm Workers

-Kent Paterson

In New Mexico and the United States, farm work keeps undergoing historic
transformations. Globalization, mechanization, technological innovation,
and job outsourcing have eliminated or changed thousands of jobs in
cotton, pecan, chile, pecan, onion and other crops.

At the same time, many of the long-time conditions of farm work-temporary
or seasonal employment, minimum wage violations, sub-contracting, reduced
or no benefits, wage theft, and lack of union representation now
characterize broader sections of the job market. To borrow  a Spanish
phrase, the “campesinizacion” of the working-class is arguably underway.

Interviewed this past harvest season, several workers and staff members at
El Paso’s Agricultural Workers Center (CTAF), a shelter where farm workers
stay while they work nearby fields in southern New Mexico and far west
Texas, described difficult conditions facing laborers in the chile and
onion harvests of 2010.

A 51-year-old worker who formerly worked in construction told Frontera
NorteSur that some farm labor contractors do not pay workers for all the
hours put in and/or deduct Social Security payments but fail to report
them to the federal government.

“We’ve always had this problem,” the man originally from the Mexican state
of Chihuahua charged. “(Contractors) put down less hours on the receipts
than you work…it’s robbery. It’s fraud. There are no inspectors.”

The worker calculated that the average maximum for workers in the green
chile harvest was $60 per day, but part-time work sometimes only netted
harvesters between $12-$15 for a short day. For workers without wheels,
quick rides to New Mexico fields that are frequently one hour or more from
El Paso cost  five bucks in privately-owned vans, he added.

Two other workers who labored in the onion harvest reported making between
$45-$80 per day, but a woman who was injured while working in a field said
that she could previously earn more on a piece-rate basis from stuffing
sacks with topped bulbs instead of filling the bigger boxes currently in
use.  Fearful of retaliation, the three workers requested their names not
be printed.

Carlos Marentes, longtime CTAF director, said other developments
accompanied long-standing grievances.  He said some onion harvest
contractors in Dona Ana County, New Mexico, seemed to have added a “second
shift” to the harvest season, employing workers who enter fields equipped
with small lights attached to their caps while backed-up by vehicle
headlights to harvest onions in the dead of the night.

“There continues being prosperity for the industry but pressure and
exploitation for the workers,” Marentes maintained.

Traveling from Albuquerque, Maria Martinez, staff attorney for the
non-profit New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP), met with groups
of farm workers on multiple occasions last harvest season.

“Every time a person will stand up and say something,” Martinez said, in
regards to the mystery of Social Security deductions. “We need to do
something about this.” Last November, the NMCLP sent letters to five farm
labor contractors laying out  workers’ complaints on a host of issues
covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act and Agricultural Workers
Protection Act  but only one contractor answered a letter, Martinez said.
The respondent wound up paying back money owned to a worker for injuries
sustained several years ago, she said.

To inform farm labor employers of occupational law requirements, the New
Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions has announced a January 25 forum
in Las Cruces.

Increasingly, however, farm workers in the region are displaced by a
combination of mechanization and the conquest of the chile market by
producers in Mexico, China and other nations.

Currently a health promoter in southern New Mexico’s Hatch Valley,
Dolores Antonio immigrated to the agricultural region in 1975 from
Chihuahua. At the beginning of her residence, Antonio said she made about
$2.50 per hour working the onion and chile crops.

Since then, crop mechanization has been the biggest change witnessed by
Antonio.

“This last year was very hard for the people, because they worked very
little,” Antonio told UTEP Anthropology Professor Gina Nunez-Mchiri in a
2010 interview.

“When I worked, there were not as many people. It was different. They
divided you up according to rows. You grabbed your rows and could last the
entire day picking chile or onions.” Today’s workers, Antonio said, find
less ground to till and consequently less work and income.

“What is going to happen to all the people with machines?” asked the
construction worker-turned-chile picker in El Paso. “We have family. There
is no work in construction or anything.”

According to the El Paso Times, November’s official unemployment rate in
the border city reached 10.7 percent, a number well above the national
average of 9.8 percent.

Rose Garcia, executive director of the Tierra del Sol Housing
Corporation, a non-profit organization based in New Mexico that builds
farm worker housing, insisted that displaced farm workers have not left
New Mexico. Many are trying to keep their heads above water by working odd
jobs or picking pecans in smaller orchards that can’t afford mechanical
harvesting, Garcia said in a phone interview with Frontera NorteSur.

(Farm workers) are like beggars here, because they can’t find work,”
said Garcia, who’s spent decades working on behalf of farm workers.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”

To make matters worse, a chicken farm in southern Dona Ana County that
employed upwards of 300 workers during its heyday closed last year,
according to Garcia.

Garcia roughly estimated that as many as 30,000 farm workers are in the
entire state of New Mexico, but getting a precise handle on the exact
number of field hands in the southern New Mexico borderland and what has
happened to them has proven a slippery exercise.

On May 29, 2009, a group of local farm worker advocates including Las
Cruces Catholic Bishop Ricardo Ramirez wrote to New Mexico Senator Jeff
Bingaman requesting his assistance in getting the United States Department
of Labor to fund studies that would give a more accurate picture of the
size of the farm worker population.

“Farm workers have a long and proud history in New Mexico…,” opened the
letter. “But farm workers are aging. Their historical contributions and
cultural heritage are being overlooked and becoming lost to history.
Moreover, farm workers have been and continue to be some of the most
under-educated and under-compensated individuals in the US workforce,
receiving low pay for physically strenuous manual work…”

A dearth of demographic data, noted the letter’s authors has greatly
complicated efforts to provide workforce training, legal assistance,
medical care and housing for farm workers. Besides Bishop Ramirez, the
signatories of the letter included representatives of the Colonias
Development Council, Tierra del Sol, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty,
and the Border Agricultural Workers Project of El Paso.

More than three years after the Great Recession struck the United States
and nearly two years after the letter was sent, local farm worker
advocates are still waiting for action from the US Department of Labor,
despite efforts from Senator Bingaman’s office,  said Garcia, who was
among the 2009 letter’s signatories.  “It’s kind of paralyzed getting any
kind of housing or services for farm workers,” Garcia contended. “We can’t
compete.“

Recently, Tierra del Sol lost out on United States Department of
Agriculture support for 30 new apartments because of the New Mexico
statistical gap she said. “It’s not that the money is not here,” Garcia
added. “It’s that this system has failed us because we don’t have the data
to plead  the case.”

On the other hand, Garcia said her organization was able to get funding
for a 40-unit apartment complex in Texas’ Panhandle region thanks to the
availability of local data on the role of farm workers in the local
economy.

The daughter of a migrant family that once traveled the lettuce trail
between California and New Mexico, Dr. Nunez-Mchiri later returned to the
Hatch Valley to do field work for the US Census and then her dissertation.

Displaced farm workers cope with their predicament in a variety of ways,
some attempting to make a go at with  small businesses or selling goods in
the informal economy, Dr. Nunez-Mchiri said.

Older workers are less successful in managing displacement, according to
Dr. Nunez-Mchiri. “They lose self-esteem….,” she added. “They enter into a
great depression. I’ve seen a lot of sadness.”

Younger workers, the rural community expert said, have a better shot of
transitioning to other jobs, with some able to land stable employment in
local dairies.

“The dairies have been an alternative to field work but they have their
risks,” Nunez-Mchiri said, adding that work accidents and exposure to
animal infections are routine hazards encountered by the new farm workers.

“It’s just really dangerous work,” agreed farm labor attorney Maria
Martinez. The NMCLP is suing the State of New Mexico in State District
Court for excluding farm workers from mandatory workers’ compensation
coverage. Three of the five plaintiffs in the lawsuit are dairy workers,
Martinez added.

Although New Mexico’s historic chile crop declined in recent years, the
Land of Enchantment’s dairy industry leaped from the lower rung of the
national ladder to the country’s seventh biggest by 2010, according to
former New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Miley Gonzalez. Additionally, the
dairy industry spun off related businesses like cheese plants, Gonzalez
said in an interview before leaving office last month.

Historically, farm workers have confronted cycles of mechanization,
displacement, seasonal unemployment and then re-employment. Such trends
swept cotton, sugar beets, chile, onions and other crops, said Dr. Dionico
Valdes, professor of history and Chicano studies at Michigan State
University. The upshot is a work life reminiscent of the “classic
depression of the 1930s,”  Dr. Valdes said.

Nowadays, many others are getting  a taste of the sub-contracted
employment, constant lay-offs and even institutionalized unemployment long
endured by farm workers.  With underemployment factored in, approximately
one-fourth of the US work force is either unemployed or involuntarily
working part-time, according to many estimates.

Quoted in the Bloomberg News Service this month, a veteran labor market
forecaster said he was skeptical the abundance of jobs like that
experienced  in the late 1990s would return anytime soon .

“I’m not sure we’ll ever return to the type of full employment we’ve had
in the past,” said Charles McMillon, president and chief economist of the
Washington, DC-based MBG Information Services firm.

For agricultural historian Dr. Dionicio Valdes, farm workers relegated to
the shadows  of society were among the first to tread a path where others
now walk. “It seems like in this, it’s been perfected in agriculture first
and then moved elsewhere,” the Midwestern scholar mused.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

Posted by: Conrado Garcia Jamin

About northernbarbarians

I'm an activist and advocate for human rights and the establishment of penalties to the simulators and inconsistent. My fight is for respect for universal rights and freedoms. Journalist various print and electronic media in several countries. Independent research analyst of social risks in unions, political, corporate and institutional image. Four books published and three in electronic version. Live one day at a time, even on payments, sometimes alive yesterday. Modest income is the price of freedom.
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