Most media coverage of immigration today accepts as fact claims by growers that they can't get enough workers to harvest crops. Agribusiness wants a new guest worker program, and complaints of a labor shortage are their justification for it. But a little investigation of the actual unemployment rate in farm worker communities leads to a different picture.
There are always local variations in crops, and the number of workers needed to pick them. But the labor shortage picture is largely a fiction. I've spent over a decade traveling through California valleys and I have yet to see fruit rotting because of a lack of labor to pick it. I have seen some pretty miserable conditions for workers, though.
As the nation debates changes in our immigration laws, we need a reality check. There is no question that the demographics of farm labor are changing. Today many more workers migrate from small towns in southern Mexico and even Central America than ever before. In the grape rows and citrus trees, you're as likely to hear Mixtec or Purepecha or Triqui – indigenous languages that predate Columbus – as you are to hear Spanish.
These families are making our country a richer place, in wealth and culture. For those who love spicy mole sauce, or the beautiful costumes and dance festivals like the guelaguetza, that's reason to celebrate. In the off-season winter months, when there's not much work in the fields, indigenous women weavers create brilliant rebozos, or shawls, in the styles of their hometowns in Oaxaca,
But the wages these families earn are barely enough to survive. As Abe Lincoln said, “labor creates all wealth,” but farm workers get precious little of it. Farm workers are worse off today than they've been for over two decades.
Twenty-five years ago, at the height of the influence of the United Farm Workers, union contracts guaranteed twice the minimum wage of the time. Today, the hourly wage in almost every farm job is the minimum wage — $8.00 an hour in California, $7.25 elsewhere under the Federal law. If wages had kept up with that UFW base rate, farm workers today would be making $16.00 an hour. But they're not.
If there were a labor shortage so acute that growers were having a hard time finding workers, they would be raising wages to make jobs more attractive. But they aren't.
And despite claims of no workers, rural unemployment is high. Today's unemployment rate in Delano, birthplace of the United Farm Workers, is 30%. Last year in the Salinas Valley, the nation's salad bowl, it swung between 12% and 22%.
Yet growers want to be able to bring workers into the country on visas that say they have to work at minimum wage in order to stay, and must be deported if they are out of work longer than a brief time. The industry often claims that if it doesn't have a new contract labor program to supply workers at today's low wages, consumers will have to pay a lot more for fruit and vegetables. But low wages haven't kept prices low. The supermarket price of fruit has more than doubled in the last two decades.
Low wages have a human cost, however. In housing, it means that families live in cramped trailers, or packed like sardines in apartments and garages, with many people sleeping in a single room. Indigenous workers have worse conditions than most, along with workers who travel with the crops. Migrants often live in cars, sometimes even sleeping in the fields or under the trees.
Housing is in crisis in rural California. Over the last half-century, growers demolished most of the old labor camps for migrant workers. They were never great places to live, but having no place is worse.
In past years I've seen children working in fields in northern Mexico, but this year I saw them working here too. When families bring their kids to work, it's not because they don't value their education or future. It's because they can't make ends meet with the labor of adults alone.
What would make a difference?
Unions would. The UFW pushed wages up decades ago, getting the best standard of living California farm workers ever received. But growers have been implacably hostile to union organizing. For guest workers and undocumented workers alike, joining a union or demanding rights can mean risking not just firing, but deportation.
Enforcing the law would better workers' lives. California Rural Legal Assistance does a heroic job inspecting field conditions, and helping workers understand their rights. But that's an uphill struggle too. According to the Indigenous Farm Worker Survey, a third of the workers surveyed still get paid less than the minimum. Many are poisoned with pesticides, suffer from heat exhaustion, and work in illegal conditions.
Give workers real legal status. Farm workers need a permanent residence visa, not a guest worker visa conditioned on their work status. This would ensure their right to organize without risking deportation. Organization in turn would bring greater equality, stability and recognition of their important contribution. It would bring higher earnings.
But growers don't want to raise wages to attract labor. Instead, they want workers on temporary visas, not permanent ones – a steady supply of people who can work, but can't stay, or who get deported if they become unemployed. This is a repeat of the old, failed bracero program of the 1940s and 50s, or the current failures of today's H2A visa program that succeeded it.
With a temporary labor program, farm wages will not rise. Instead, farm workers will subsidize agribusiness with low wages, in the name of keeping agriculture “competitive.” Strikes and unions that raise family income will be regarded as a threat.
We've seen this before. During the bracero program, when resident workers struck, growers brought in braceros. And if braceros struck, they were deported. That's why Cesar Chavez, Ernesto Galarza and Bert Corona finally convinced Congress to end the program in 1964. The UFW's first grape strike began the year after the bracero law was repealed.
Today immigrant workers who already live in the U.S., like those who recently went on strike at Washington State's Sakuma Berry Farms, are being pitted against modern-day braceros brought in under the H2A program. The H2A wage sets the limit on what growers will pay. Workers fear that if they protest, they won't get hired for next year's picking season, and others will take their places.
Farm workers perform valuable work and need better conditions and security, not an immigration reform that will keep them in poverty. Giving employers another bracero program is a failed idea, one we shouldn't repeat. Farm labor that can support families is a better one.