Out of the shadows

Farmers need reliable labor, and often that means undocumented workers

HARD AT WORK <br>Farm workers form the backbone—literally—of the state’s agriculture industry. Many are here illegally, but if the government forced them out, who would do the dirty work? This photo was taken several years ago, and the laborers pictured should not be considered illegal.

Farm workers form the backbone—literally—of the state’s agriculture industry. Many are here illegally, but if the government forced them out, who would do the dirty work? This photo was taken several years ago, and the laborers pictured should not be considered illegal.

photo by Sara Sipes

Paper chase: The California Farm Bureau Federation estimates that 60 to 70 percent of farm workers may be in the country illegally.

At the heart of one of California’s largest industries lies a nasty secret: Most of its employees, hundreds of thousands of people, are criminals.

They are illegal immigrants, usually from Mexico, and California’s multibillion-dollar agriculture industry can’t survive without them.

Think about it: Most of the fruits and vegetables we eat are harvested by people who, besides not speaking English and understanding this culture, live in fear of the law. And because they live outside the law, they are always vulnerable to exploitation.

Farmers are in a bind, too. If the government suddenly got serious about enforcing immigration laws, they’d have nobody to pick their crops. As it is, there are plenty of workers.

“It is not hard to find work, and it is easy to get illegal documents,” said Tod Kimmelshue, a marketing director at Northern California Farm Credit and vice president of the Butte County Farm Bureau. “One of the problems is that there are many people who will supply [undocumented workers] with illegal documents.”

Farmers just ask for a Social Security number and green card. Often, the workers are hired whether those documents are legitimate or not.

Butte, Tehama, Glenn and Colusa counties don’t need quite the same swarms of migrant labor as farms farther south do, but undocumented labor is still an important component of the Northstate’s agriculture industry. The workers are valuable here for their ability to prune and pick peaches, kiwis, plums and olives. But, beyond that, the presence of undocumented workers has an impact on Northern California economies.

Efforts are being made to improve the situation. Growers say they want a legal and reliable work force, and labor organizations want to bring illegal immigrants out of the shadows and into the legal light, where they are less likely to be taken advantage of by farmers and labor contractors.

Last year, the two sides were close to passing a compromise bill creating a guest workers program, but ultimately it was shot down because of vehement opposition from Republican Senator Phil Gramm of Texas.

Since then, the two sides have split. Big Agriculture is now pushing for a less-restrictive version of the guest worker program that would cut back on red tape and allow large numbers of migrants to come up from Mexico for harvest and then return home.

Labor organizations argue that there is already widespread unemployment, and importing more labor will only compound the problem of millions of illegal immigrants who are already here.

“There are no labor shortages,” said United Farm Workers spokesman Marc Grossman. “The only equitable solution is, instead of importing hundreds of thousands of additional workers on top of those already here, to offer those who are here the opportunity to earn legal status. Because, really, agriculture in California and across the nation has been characterized by acute unemployment and oversupply of labor.”

Because of the seasonal and shifting nature of the job, it is hard to know how many farm workers California has. Estimates from the Farm Bureau are around 300,000, but the UFW argues that agricultural economists estimate that there are 800,000 farm workers pursuing 500,000 jobs.

Bob Krauter, assistant manager of communications and news for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said that undocumented workers might represent 60 to 70 percent of the work force.

Grossman said, “If the government ever did crack down, a certain percentage of workers could be lost. Many of them are experienced, highly skilled and difficult to replace. A lot of the worst abuses of farm workers come from the fact that many are undocumented and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

“We have people who have been here for 10 or 15 years or more. These people are hard-working, tax-paying workers. They do work that other people don’t want to do under conditions that most Americans would not tolerate for low pay and minimum benefits. They are contributing members of their communities.”

California Farm Bureau Federation President Bill Pauli said the issue is a complex one. “We certainly feel at the Farm Bureau that there needs to be a program to legalize those who have worked in our country for some extended period of time. If they continue to work, they ought to be allowed some kind of status to stay here and still come back without being penalized,” he said. “Some of them would love to go home and visit their families, but they don’t know if they can get back. And we know that many of the documents that some of them have are not up to the standard that they need to be.”

Most of the Farm Bureau’s energies are invested in making a guest worker program that fits California’s unique needs.

“These problems that farmers are having are not going to go away under the current guest worker program; we need to find some compromises and figure out a way for the reform to move forward, and obviously there are a lot of different viewpoints on this,” Krauter said.

Farm worker conditions have improved significantly in the last hundred years, but it is still a rough way to make a living.

Lynn Barris, a Butte County environmental and labor activist, said the current situation is not fair to farm workers. “There is no overtime unless you’ve worked over 10 hours a day. The rest of society gets overtime at eight hours a day. Agriculture is the only industry that starts overtime at 10 hours a day, or 60 hours a week. The pay that agriculture workers get is incredibly low, and there are no benefits. It is unbelievable. Why big agriculture wants guest workers is because they can pay even less, and that is really what it boils down to,” she said.

“Some of the pillars of our community pay people who have worked for them for 15 or 16 years hardly a penny over minimum wage. It is a tragedy," Barris said. "If you are going to be in a business, it is not OK to say you cannot afford to pay decent human wages. You have to be able to justify that you are always doing the moral and ethical thing; if you can’t make it by doing what is right, maybe you shouldn’t be in that business."