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Jan-07-2011 14:22printcomments

A Nation of Farm Workers

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

Farm workers sign photo by Bonnie King

(LAS CRUCES, N.M.) - 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

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