By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
The D’Arrigo Bros. fieldworker who cut my romaine head was earning, like all D’Arrigo fieldworkers, at least $7.05 an hour — slightly higher than the legal minimum. But in some crops workers can earn more if their crew produces above a quota of cartons. When I met him in May, Garcia had pulled in $535 the previous week, but that was the height of the season; often, his wages drop down to more like $350, which is all his wife made that week. The couple has no savings to speak of, and no pension.
The thing is, with his meager apartment and few hundred bucks a week income, Garcia is actually among the elite of lettuce harvesters, and indeed of fieldworkers nationwide. D’Arrigo Bros. pays relatively well, by the industry’s standards, and the work lasts most of the year. “Five hundred dollars a week is definitely the high end of the scale,” says Efrain Lara, a UFW organizer and former D’Arrigo fieldworker. And wages are getting no better — in fact, the opposite. According to the federal Labor Department, average farm-worker wages dropped during the 1990s. Moreover, most farm workers are unemployed for months at a stretch, and if they’re not citizens, they get no unemployment benefits. All told, the median income for farm workers nationwide is just $7,500 a year.
Worse, many don’t even get paid what they’re owed. Cheating workers is rampant in the industry. One spring afternoon in the parking lot of a FoodsCo grocery store in Salinas — a popular pickup point for fieldworkers — Moises Hernandez, 21, told me he was working six days a week cutting lettuce for various employers. Theoretically, he was earning between $250 and $300 a week. But several growers’ checks had bounced, and he was still waiting for payment from two others. He’s making a lot less than he thought he would when he left Veracruz to sneak across the border two years ago, he said. Hernandez broke off our conversation to ask Jesus Lopez, a worker with California Rural Legal Assistance who was showing me around, if he knew where to get a free meal in town because Hernandez had no money for lunch.
Many of the worst abuses — including Moises Hernandez’s unpaid checks — stem from a relatively recent change in the system of agricultural employment. Since the mid-1970s, growers have become increasingly less likely to directly hire the men and women who pick their crops; they leave that to a burgeoning class of farm-labor contractors. By now, two-thirds of the state’s vegetable and melon growers use labor contractors.
This system profoundly muddies the issue of who is responsible for workplace rule violations, making legal action difficult. Unscrupulous growers can easily shift the blame onto middleman contractors — and as Human Rights Watch put it in a 2000 report, “It is not unusual for farm labor contractors to evade responsibility for violations by closing down operations, only to later resume under a different name.” The fact that so many farm workers are here illegally, and often don’t speak English, means they are unlikely to complain to authorities when their rights are violated — assuming they even know they have rights that are being violated.
D’Arrigo Bros., which prides itself on keeping direct control over all stages of its production, does not use labor contractors. It hires its own fieldworkers, and provides at least some health insurance and other benefits, which may explain why the company has a relatively high number of fieldworkers who have worked there for many years.
Still, D’Arrigo has its share of labor troubles. The UFW has filed a class-action suit demanding workers be paid for the time they spend in the company’s buses, being taken to and from the fields, which can eat up an hour or two each day. The union has also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the company unfairly shunts women into lower-paying jobs. And there’s the little matter of a contract. D’Arrigo employees voted way back in the 1970s to certify the UFW as their representative and to start negotiations for a contract. Those negotiations are still dragging on.
Kix Nystrom, the Cheesecake Factory vice president who oversees produce procurement, bristled a bit when I asked whether the company had any kind of policies setting worker-treatment standards for their contractors, the way some companies do for their contract workers in, say, sneaker factories in Indonesia. “We deal with reputable companies,” he said. “It’s hard work, but I think the workers get paid well for what they do.”
“Paid well” is a relative concept, however. Out amid the fields south of Salinas is a collection of single-story, unheated wooden barracks surrounded by a barbed-wire-topped fence that is called Toro Camp. Abelardo Romo, a 42-year-old migrant worker originally from Sinaloa, Mexico, pays $86 a week to stay here, sleeping on a thin mattress on a metal bedstead in a room with four other men. Romo, a professorial-looking guy with glasses and a thoughtful air, leaves his wife and two daughters in El Centro every year to come up to Salinas for the season to cut lettuce for River Ranch, a big grower. Every couple of weeks, he gets in his mud-spattered old Dodge, its left taillight held in place with duct tape, and makes the trip home to visit his family. “I think very much about my family, but I can’t do anything else,” he says. “The pay is very low down there.”