AN HONEST DAY'S PAY FOR FARMWORKERS
By Dick Meister
Finally there's new hope for California's incredibly exploited
farmworkers. Much more needs to be done, but as United Farm Workers
President Arturo Rodriguez says, the first "steps toward progress have been
They came this month. Despite the usual opposition of powerful grower
lobbyists, the Legislature passed and Gov. Gray Davis signed, UFW-sponsored
bills that greatly increase sanctions against the many farm employers who
routinely cheat workers out of pay and otherwise shortchange them.
Growers and the notoriously exploitative labor contractors who most growers
rely on to provide them employees now face fines of $1,000 to $25,000 -- or
more -- for cheating workers.
Very few growers and contractors have been penalized in the past, even
though authorities estimate that tens of thousands of farmworkers are being
cheated out of a total of more than $4 million a year. In some cases,
they've been paid at less than the legal minimum wage, in some cases paid
only for some of their hours on the job, and in some cases not paid at all
for hours, weeks, even months of work.
Reporter Andy Furillo of the Sacramento Bee discovered, for instance, a
grower who "skirted the minimum wage by grouping four workers under a single
Social Security number," one who "hired his workers at 4:30 a.m. but kept
them sitting on a bus for two hours before he started to pay them," one who
"paid at a per vine-pruned-rate that added up to barely half the legal
Furillo reported that "even the state's major grower representative, the
California Farm Bureau Federation, concedes that illegal underpayment is
a disconcerting fact of life in the industry."
Significantly, the bills aimed at curbing the employer abuses were carried
by the Legislature's principal leaders, Democrats Robert Hertzberg, the
Assembly speaker from Van Nuys, and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton of
San Francisco -- and passed by large margins in both houses.
Farmworkers, says Hertzberg, "need to know that when they put in an honest
day's work they will get an honest day's pay."
Until now, there's been no possibility of that for many of the workers,
mainly because of the state's failure to adequately enforce the laws against
employer cheating. Less than two dozen inspectors have been assigned to
cover all of California's workplaces, including the more than 36,000 on
The enforcement mechanism set up by the new laws shifts the primary
responsibility for protecting workers from state inspectors to county
district attorneys. Cheated farmworkers and their advocates now can file
criminal complaints with the DAs against their grower employers.
The change is crucial, notes the UFW's Rodriguez, because it gives
enforcement powers to "elected local district attorneys in many counties
where the voices of farmworkers and Latinos are increasingly being heard."
The state also may do more. The latest state budget includes more than $2
million in new funding to help enforce labor laws. That should at least
double the number of farm site inspectors.
Additionally, the state will now enable workers who are defrauded by labor
contractors to more easily recover their financial losses and collect
damages as well for the contractors' frequent violations of such labor laws
as those requiring rest and lunch breaks and prohibiting unjust firings.
The money to pay the claims will come from the $25,000 to $75,000 bonds
contractors must post with the state to get their business licenses.
Workers also can now sue growers who hire unlicensed contractors, as many
do, to collect damages for violations by the contractors.
Enactment of the new laws marked the most important political victories for
the UFW and its supporters since the union won passage in 1975 of the
Agricultural Labor Relations Act that granted California's farmworkers the
union rights denied those in all other states.
But this year's victories must be followed up with further reforms, starting
with an increase in the pitifully low minimum wage of $6.25 an hour and
vigorous enforcement of the Labor Relations Act. Employers have been
allowed to virtually ignore the act, firing or threatening to fire workers
who demand union representation or who simply complain on their own about
their working conditions.
That's largely why the UFW represents only a very small percentage of the
state's farmworkers. The vast majority remain mired in poverty, their pay
averaging less than $10,000 a year, their jobs among the state's most
dangerous, lacking the fringe benefits provided workers in other
occupations, and often denied even such on-the-job amenities as fresh
drinking water and field toilets.
Copyright Dick Meister, co-author of "A Long Time Coming: The
Struggle to Unionize America's Farm Workers" (Macmillan).