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Migrants' rights

December 14, 2011

While migrant farm workers in California pick most of the state's fruits and vegetables, experts says too many factors are conspiring against the often illegal immigrants in their struggle for better working conditions.

Men picking grapes in a California vineyard
Migrant fruit pickers work under backbreaking conditionsImage: Max Pringle

Few shoppers in a San Francisco area grocery store say they have spent time thinking how their fruit and vegetables got to the shelves.

"I don't think about it at all. I think most people think about how much am I going to spend," one shopper said. "I'm guilty of it, most people I know are guilty of it."

Another shopper going down her checklist of holiday purchases said she knows "one person who thinks about where it comes from. One. That's it."

But in the US state's agricultural fields there are quite a few people thinking about the conditions people work under to get food delivered to the grocery store.

Fruit for sale at a California stand
Most people do think about how their food reaches storesImage: Max Pringle

The United Farm Workers Union estimated that about 90 percent of the roughly 30,000 farm workers in California are foreign born, mostly from Mexico and about 70 percent of those are undocumented immigrants. They work on farms across the state for up to 10 hours a day and in all kinds of weather picking apples, strawberries, tomatoes, grapes and fruit stand staples.

Back breaking work

Job requirements like reaching and stooping to pick crops for up to 10 hours a day make it more physically demanding than most jobs.

"It’s literally back breaking, not figuratively, but literally back breaking work," said Frank Bardacke, a labor historian and author of "Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the two souls of the United Farm Workers."

"People make $10 or $11 per hour, but at very, very hard work. This is work that's bent over all day long," Bardacke added.

Norma Ventura is with California Rural Legal Assistance in Fresno, California. The group works to protect farm workers' legal rights. She said workers are paid by the amount they pick and many of them feel pressured to risk their health to increase their production.

"It's however many boxes you can make in one day, or however many trays you make in one day, that's what you’re going to get paid for," said Ventura.

Language barriers

According to Ventura, many migrants, mainly from Mexico, have been arriving in California's fields in recent years. She said that poses a new set of challenges in education workers about workplace safety and labor rights.

"They speak other languages: Misteco, Zapateco, Triki," Ventura said. "A lot of these trainings are given mostly in Spanish and we still have a lot of farm workers who don't speak Spanish fluently.”

Vines in a California vineyard
Migrant workers pick most of California's fruit and vegetablesImage: Max Pringle

Workers say they also have to deal with some employers' dodgy accounting practices.

"If we work about 10 hours, we should earn about $80 that day. Sometimes they only pay us $40, $50 or $60," said Reyjeno Primitivo, who has picked all kinds of crops across California for the last 10 years. "We're afraid to say anything because the employer may sack us or replace us."

Off the books

The United Farm Workers Union argues unionizing the workers will give them a voice on the job. But the itinerant and seasonal nature of the work forces workers to move around following the harvest. UFW officials said the constant moving around and most of the workers' off-the-books immigration status makes organizing difficult.

"It's a workforce that everybody knows is 70 or 80 percent undocumented," said the UFW's Armando Elenes. "It's a workforce that has no job security whatsoever."

He said only extra worker involvement in determining their own working conditions would make a real difference in minimizing the number of illnesses and fatalities in the fields.

"Until workers feel that they have union support, until workers have a real voice on the job, these conditions will continue," Elenes said.

There have been some recent legislative successes. In October, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law directing the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to certify the union on farms where evidence is found that the employer interfered with a union election.

Meanwhile, winter squash, cabbage and cauliflower still need harvesting this month. And the workers go on stooping to pick those crops, doing what it takes to feed families - theirs and all the families of California.

Author: Max Pringle

Editor: Sean Sinico