SARASOTA/MANATEE FARMWORKER SUPPORTERS
4517 Ascot Circle South, Sarasota, Florida 34235
Sarasota/Manatee Farmworker Supporters is a branch of the National Farmworker Ministry
Alejandro Reyes, President
Frances Eckstein, Vice-President for Communications
Marvin Mills, Secretary and President Emeritus
FEBRUARY 2006 NEWSLETTER
1ST ISSUE FORUM OF 2006
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 18, 2006 – 2:00 to 4:00 P.M.
SELBY PUBLIC LIBRARY, 1331 First Street, Sarasota
Immigration Law andFarmworkers: In December, the U.S. House passed the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (H.R. 4437), which includes radical new immigration enforcement measures. Among other things, H.R. 4437 would make all undocumented aliens felons, would construct a 700 mile long fence along the U.S./Mexico border and would require employers to verify the validity of work documents presented by prospective employees. The Senate is expected to consider H.R. 4437 and other immigration reform legislation in the next few months.
This month’s forum will explore H.R. 4437 and other bills to help understand the impact these proposals will impact the lives of area farmworkers. Panelists will include Jay Taylor, president of Taylor & Fulton, Inc., one of America’s largest tomato growers, and Adriana Cerrillo, a community activist, and Gregory Schell, an attorney for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project.
FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC
STAY UP TO DATE ON ISSUES AND NEWS AFFECTING AMERICA’S FARMWORKERS
For breaking news on farmworkers and their struggle, go to the Sarasota/Manatee Farm Worker Supporters webpage. Updated daily, the web page contains the nation’s most complete listing of news items relating to farmworkers (plus several years of archives!)
February 7, 2006
Migrant bill faces mixed reactions
A seat-belt rule for vans is supported, but a health-care plan draws fire
TALLAHASSEE -- Florida should spend $20 million to create affordable housing for farmworkers, increase inspections of field safety conditions and pass a law requiring seat belts in vans that carry workers to the fields, a special migrant-worker committee recommended Monday.
January 30, 2006
Jobs go begging, farmers say
They press for more Mexican workers, but others blame low pay.
By Jim Wasserman – Bee Staff Writer
CALEXICO - Thousands of Mexicans will be streaming toward the Imperial Valley by 3:55 any weekday morning, accepting jobs from farmers who say they can't find enough American workers in a county with the state's highest unemployment rate.
Rising as early as 2:30 a.m., the men and women flowing north will come to pick lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli in the Imperial Valley and Yuma County, Ariz., home to 90 percent of the nation's winter vegetables.
They will come with legitimate permanent resident cards - or counterfeit ones - knowing that they may have to wait up to three hours for work. This job will pay in one day what it would take most of them more than two weeks to earn in Mexico.
So many will come that it seems inconceivable that any work could go begging, but growers here and elsewhere in California say it does. In fact, they are making the case to Congress that they are experiencing a labor shortage in the state's $32 billion farm industry.
Economists say the shortage of workers exposes a raw truth about today's farm work: It is undesirable to virtually all but the poorest Mexicans.
By one economist's estimate, 85 percent to 90 percent of all California farmworkers are Mexican-born.
The industry pays low wages and lacks benefits but demands back-aching work. Add in a security-heightened border since Sept. 11, 2001, and the abundance of new construction, hotel and retail jobs available to legal day laborers from Mexicali, and labor market forces are speaking loudly to farmers.
Help-wanted ads in state employment offices draw "very minimal response," said Joe Colace, who farms 4,500 acres as president of Five Crowns Marketing.
"They say we're 20 percent unemployed, and we put in requests for help, and they don't come. Where are they?" said Mark McBroom, who owns and manages 2,000 acres of trees.
For Michigan State University's Vera Bitsch, the answer is simple.
"The expectation of many people is not to work that way," said Bitsch, an agribusiness management specialist. "They want work that's less physical and cleaner and not seasonal. And with that salary, it's really not a lifestyle."
In a field of irrigated lettuce near Westmorland in Imperial County, Colace's harvester is visibly lacking help.
"They're cutting seven beds, and it's designed to cut 14. It's half full," the farmer said.
In citrus groves it's the same.
"I'm short half the people I need," McBroom said. "I need 50 today. I have 25. It's not fun."
Last summer, San Joaquin Valley farms had similar complaints. Yet farmworker advocates challenge the notion of a shortage, saying that farmers use it to ensure more visas, a surplus of workers and the attendant low wages.
Organized Western agribusiness, instead of shrinking from discussion about labor conditions or pay, has begun highlighting the undesirability of its jobs to locals. Farmers are making their labor shortage prime fodder for a Washington, D.C., lobbying campaign - for a Mexican guest worker program.
"If we paid $15 an hour, we won't attract more people to agriculture," said Thomas A. Nassif, president of Irvine-based Western Growers Association.
Nassif, a former Reagan administration official and agricultural labor lawyer for California growers, has gone so far as to ask the U.S. Border Patrol to lighten up, even as he pursues federal permission to legally bring in Mexican labor for U.S. farms.
"We're the only one to say we rely on an illegal work force and say we want to make it legal," he said.
As the voice of the fresh produce industry, Western Growers favors a provision of immigration reform commonly called Agjobs, that would allow undocumented Mexican farmworkers who have worked at least 100 days in U.S. fields during a recent period to become temporary legal workers and, after six years, earn immigrant visas for themselves and their families.
It would be similar to the bracero guest worker programs from 1917-21 and 1942-64. Both programs ended after opposition from advocacy groups that decried abuse of workers or from organized labor, which said the bracero programs undermined wages for U.S. workers.
Decades later, labor's concern is being echoed by other groups.
"With the wages the farmers want to pay, they can't attract workers. That's not the same as a labor shortage," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C. "If you can get American workers to go 12,000 feet down a mine shaft to get coal, there's no reason you can't get Americans to do just about any job that needs to be done in this country."
If farmers have to match mining or construction wages, Nassif said, they will price their produce out of the market, and U.S. farms will die as consumers opt to buy cheap, foreign food.
Mehlman suggested an alternative: "Invest in mechanization, which farmers in this country have not done to the same extent that agriculture in other countries has done. That's the way you compete."
If machines were available, say agricultural interests, they would gladly switch to them.
"There are no machines available for certain crops," said Western Growers spokesman Tim Chelling. "If you look at strawberries, if you mechanize that, you end up with strawberry jam."
Even as farmers cited a labor shortage, Imperial County reported an average unemployment rate last year of 15.6 percent, more than triple the state figure. In this, one of California's poorest counties, workers earn an average of about $10 an hour, plus benefits in many cases.
In the fields, workers will average $8.84 an hour with no benefits, according to a survey by the Institute for Socio-Economic Justice. Still, the pay is appealing to Mexican citizens because the minimum wage at home is roughly $4.50 a day.
So, they head to the fields and U.S. workers look elsewhere.
Wherever one goes, to any public or private employment office in El Centro or Calexico, few people are willing to do farm labor, and almost everyone has a negative attitude toward it. In interviews, job-seeking teenagers, single moms and Mexican men living legally in Imperial County said: anything but farm work.
"I'd rather keep looking. I've seen what they do, and it's tough," said Jonathan Cuevas, an El Centro high school student looking for part-time work.
"The work is too hard, and the pay is too low," said Alejandro Alejos of El Centro. He just got his U.S. driver's license and wants a trucking job, "because the field is not good."
Griselda Lira, 27, is living in Imperial County without a full-time job. In November she was among 11,400 jobless people in the county who would do almost anything except work in fields that feed Americans their greens from November through March.
To hear experts and locals tell it, Lira represents a change on both sides of the California-Mexico border as younger people become more educated and seek opportunities elsewhere.
A high school graduate with a two-year degree in childhood education from Imperial Valley College, Lira did farm work once for six months, harvesting winter lettuce and broccoli. A caste system was instantly made clear to her.
"The (Mexican) workers said to me, 'You have (citizenship) papers, and you're working in the fields?' I said, 'There's no jobs.' They said that was not a good job for me. How can people who speak English work in the fields?"
Lira lives with her sister, dabbling in temporary jobs as a taxi dispatcher in her hometown of Brawley and earning as little as $87 a month as a government-funded home health-care worker for her mother.
Like many residents here, she is the daughter of farmworkers. And like many of a second generation, her brothers and sisters have studiously avoided the hard labors of their parents.
Lira said her mother worked in the fields until hurting a knee 10 years ago. Her father is still a farm laborer, part of a generation that associates real work with hard physical labor, sweating and toil, coming home tired. He has teased his daughter about working at fast-food restaurants, she said, and invited her again this year to work the harvests.
But Lira watched her parents develop arthritis from stooping and bending for years. She's seen her father "working in the fields with pneumonia. We tell him not to work no more, but he said 'Who's going to pay the bills?'
"I want to go back to school and finish my career, but I can't because I'm taking care of my mom," Lira said.
Eric Reyes, president of El Centro-based Institute for Socio-Economic Justice, recently surveyed 185 Mexican farmworkers. Among his findings: The average age is about 50, meaning even fewer younger Mexicans are coming across the border. Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed have noticed less labor around them in the fields.
"The young people that won't do it, they're lazy or they don't have a need," said Maria Rodríguez, coming through the border inspection station from Mexicali at 4 a.m. recently.
"It's because they're deciding to get an education," said Lilliana Zuniga Cervantes, coming to California about 30 minutes later.
A few miles to the north, Jonathan Cuevas' father, Fred, himself in the farming business, said he can't even interest his son in it temporarily.
"You gotta be in real good shape or desperate to eat," Fred Cuevas said.
Sarasota/Manatee Farmworker Supporters
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