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Study on farmworkers: Little has changed
Life for California farmworkers has changed little over the past decade, yet state and local leaders have paid too much attention to the “plight” of the situation instead of working toward developing a solution to correct the problem, a former national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens said.
Arnoldo Torres, author of “The Status of California Farm Workers Since 1990: Progress or Retrenchment,” analyzed data from various studies done from 1990 to 2005, concluding farm laborers lag behind the rest of society in terms of income, health, education, housing and other socioeconomic factors.
“Despite all of the information in the studies, concrete changes for the vast majority of farmworkers in California don’t seem to be happening,” Torres said.
Among the findings:
- In 2005, 75 percent of all individual farmworkers earned less than $15,000 a year;
- In 1990, 68 percent of farmworkers lacked health insurance; 15 years later, 70 percent of farm laborers had no health insurance;
- In 2000, 81 percent of male farmworkers and 76 percent of female farm laborers had unhealthy weights. Overall, 28 percent of men and 37 percent of women were obese;
- In 1990, 71 percent of farmworkers had completed eight or fewer years of formal education; 15 years later, farm laborers typically had completed six years of education;
- In 2003, most growers did not provide housing; the number of farm-labor camps had dropped from 5,000 in 1980 to 1,000 two decades later.
“This information is there. It’s extensive,” Torres said. “It supports itself year in and year out. Yet ,we cannot get movement in a comprehensive, concrete manner to address these conditions.”
Local farmer Gary Laux, who farms 2,000 acres of primarily citrus in Tulare and Kern counties, was skeptical of Torres’ study.
“I believe that most of these people who write studies like this are trying to portray it as a racial bias,” Laux said. “Not all farmworkers are of any specific race.”
Laux said he employs 20 full-time farmworkers, half of whom are Mexican. The other half are white, he said. Laux also contracts out some of his work to farm-labor contractors.
Additionally, Laux said farm-labor jobs pay the same as many other jobs on the market.
“Minimum wage is minimum wage. A lot of people don’t get that,” Laux said. “Nobody ever seems to complain that the gardening sector or the restaurant sector don’t get paid well.”
But Torres said farmworkers are exploited.
“History tells us that when we have an agriculture-based economy, you have the very rich who own the property and the people who are very poor who work the property. Those gaps are acceptable in a capitalistic system,” Torres said. “What isn’t acceptable is the exploitation of the worker.
“In the Central Valley, you have the very rich and the very poor. That has been the scenario since California has been a state. We’ve just kind of allowed it to go on. Nobody wants to deal with these people’s problems.”
Torres said many farmworkers are forced to continue what they do because a lot of them are undocumented and cannot work in different sectors.
In 1990, one in 10 farmworkers was unauthorized. In 2005, 57 percent of farmworkers were unauthorized.
“What you have are limited opportunities for unskilled workers,” Torres said. “Farmworkers are very skilled for agriculture work. Those skills are not very transferable to urban centers.”
Torres went on to say farmworkers are heavily underpaid.
“They certainly work much harder than that $10,000 or $15,000 that’s coming to them,” Torres said. “They’ve done more than what they get.”
Serafin Mendoza, who has been a farmworker for 15 years, said he makes between $14,000 and $15,000 a year. He said it can be challenging at times to provide for his wife and three children.
As he picked oranges last week in an orchard just off Highway 190 west of Westwood Street, Mendoza spoke through a translator and said being a farm laborer is “the only thing we know how to do.”
Mendoza, who has a sixth-grade education, does not have any health insurance, but he said his employer would cover his hospital bills if he was injured on the job.
Gorge Cortez said he would get the same coverage. A farmworker for 20 years, Cortez, who has a third-grade education, has a wife and four kids and makes between $15,000 and $20,000 a year.
“Normally, [work] is stable,” Cortez said through a translator, “but in the months of June and July, it’s hard. One would like to pursue a different career, but it’s tough when this is the only thing you know how to do.”
Instead of focusing on the problem, Torres said it is time to start working to develop a solution.
“We certainly talk about [farmworkers’] problems, don’t we?” Torres said. “We like to give a lot of attention to the plight, but we have no concrete, comprehensive vision being presented.”
Torres has called on the state Legislature, the government, the non-profit community and foundations to undertake the following actions:
- Suspend the realignment of state services until counties are given benchmarks for serving farmworkers.
- Incentivize county-based federally qualified health centers to expand services to farmworkers.
- Create a task force to design comprehensive, long-term strategies for improving the health and other conditions of California farmworkers.
- Require the task force to work with philanthropic foundations to regularly survey farmworkers and share their findings with government and the legislature.
“Despite the holidays, the political rhetoric, the movies, the announcements in political arenas, all of these things, no one has done the kind of knitty gritty policy work that this population deserves, that this population has earned,” Torres said. “You have to have a vision. You have to have a comprehensive plan.”