Recently, the UFW has gained quite a lot of national attention for their “Take our Jobs” campaign. This is a campaign in which the UFW has invited unemployed Americans to come and work in the fields and do the same kind of work that many undocumented immigrants are supposedly “taking away” from other American citizens. Out of 5,000 applicants, only three have managed to actually begin working in the fields, and they are making $10 an hour in Texas (compare that to the $8 an hour migrant farm workers are making here in California!). A reporter from a local news station decided to take up the UFW’s offer, but she could only manage to work in the fields for a mere two hours. Steve Colbert is up next (UFW president Arturo Rodriguez was featured on the Colbert Report, here’s the link: http://www.colbertnation.com/full-episodes/thu-july-8-2010-arturo-rodriguez), we’ll see how he does.
Basically, the point that I’m trying to make is putting aside the abuse, intimidation, and pressure, the very nature of agricultural working conditions are difficult. For starters, it’s very hot. Here in the central valley of California summer temperatures hover around the mid to upper nineties on average, and during July (when the harvest starts) the heat gets especially intense with temperatures rising as high as 115 degrees. Many of the workers tell me that they are already bathed in sweat by the time of their late morning lunch break. In addition to the heat, workers must also deal with the effects of pesticides being sprayed on the crops they pick. As Don Ivan explained to me on the way back from his leaders’ meeting, “we have to work underneath the vines and the sulfur dust from the chemicals they put on the grapes gets in our eyes. We can’t wear glasses to protect our eyes because they would slip off when we sweat.” Besides the heat and the chemicals, there are also just certain facts about the industry. Picking grapes is oriented around production. So either way there is going to be a certain amount of pressure to work as quickly and efficiently of possible. Of course the UFW is fighting to have workers work at a manageable and not mechanic pace, but even this would still require a significantly fast rate of production among the workers. Combine this with the long hours (8-10) that they put in each day, and it becomes pretty obvious that farm work is definitely not easy. This is why I have so much respect for the farm workers and the work they accomplish on a daily basis. I honestly don’t think I’d be able to last for two hours doing what they do for the whole day. Many of the farm workers I talked to have been working for Guimarra for 3, 5, 10, or even 25 years, and the fact that they still have the courage to continue doing what they do day in and day out, while fighting for their rights, is honorable and admirable.
Unfortunately, I’d like to now talk about some of the ways in which the company takes advantage of its workers. Even though Guimarra is a multi-million dollar company, with branches in set up in Chile, Mexico, and Peru, they still seem to find it necessary to financially cut corners to the detriment of its workers. For example, if it’s raining the company demands that the workers show up to work. The company then makes the workers spend up to three to four hours waiting for the rain to stop. If the rain stops then the workers enter the fields and begin working but if it doesn’t stop then the company sends all the workers home. However, the workers are not paid for the three or four hours that they spent waiting for the rain to stop, even though the company required them to be there. Add this to the fact that workers are required to spend their own time and resources washing their picking bins as well as show up to work 15 minutes early without pay, and this is adds up to a serious amount of money that the company is unjustly taking away from its workers. Migrant farm worker families can’t afford this. Just like any other typical American family, they have bills to pay, daily living expenses, and mouths to feed. How ironic is it that the very people who work so hard picking the produce that lies on our dining room table have to struggle just to do the same for their own families?