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Outsourcing Abuse: How Farm Workers Are Being Cheated Out of Their Hard-Earned Money

This kind of wage theft can be found in the fields of nearly every handpicked crop in the United States -- organic or conventional.

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The kinds of problems officials found say a lot about the nature of enforcement by the state. Of those 280 citations, 138 were for the employer’s failure to prove they had workers’ compensation insurance. This is crucial, because problems with workers’ comp are quickly identified by the absence of a certificate on site; in the field, that usually means asking a supervisor to pull the paper out of a binder on the seat of his pickup. Proving wage theft, however, is far more tedious, requiring inspectors to interview workers, analyze their time cards, and then gain access to company payroll records.

Considering the type of infractions found, not just the number of citations, leads to a second interpretation of agency statistics: Inspectors have focused on racking up easy wins while sidelining more egregious and difficult problems. Put more bluntly, the numbers are an example of “what some people have called the machine-gun approach,” says California’s labor commissioner, Julie Su, a former garment-worker advocate appointed by Governor Jerry Brown last year. (In 2001, Su was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for her work as a civil-rights lawyer specializing in labor abuse.) “You hit a lot of employers very quickly” for easy-to-find violations. That ramps up department statistics for an agency with limited staff but doesn’t improve conditions for workers. More likely, Su says, it means one of two things: Either “we’re not investigating in the right places, or … the inspections we’re doing are not in-depth enough to uncover the violations.”

Whenever he harvests onions, Villalobos spends most of his time on his knees. Onions are root crops, so tractors pass through fields at midday, uprooting bulbs once the dew has evaporated, releasing their pungent odor into the air; mid-harvest, onion fields can be smelled by drivers on adjacent roads. Enterprising workers stand to the side as tractors traverse the fields, and then descend on the rows to stake a claim for work that won’t start until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. The ground, soft and freshly turned, is now littered with onions, and workers have two options: spend their day bent over full at the waist to pick them up or learn to shuffle on their knees. Most onion pickers, Villalobos included, choose the latter and invest in a pair of kneepads.

To begin his work, Villalobos first spreads out burlap sacks to mark the territory he expects to work. “The first thing you care about,” Villalobos says, “is getting a really long row”—roughly the distance of a city block—a row “where you would think, ‘I’m going to make $120 today.’” Once his territory is claimed, Villalobos drops to his knees and shuffles down the row to begin harvesting. In one hand he holds a cutting tool known as tijeras, something of a cross between shears and tongs, with vicious six-inch blades. With the other hand, he gathers seven, eight, nine onions from the ground, shakes off the dirt, and snips the thatches of root from the bulbs. If he has placed his set of five-gallon construction buckets just right, he will need only to pivot at the waist in order to reach the mouth of a bucket after cutting off the roots. Then, with another snip through their green tops, he drops the onions into the container, achieving an economy of motion that minimizes the time he spends doing anything besides cutting onions—and thus boosting his pay.

Workdays in onions start in the afternoon, stretch overnight, and end midmorning the next day. Under the contactor Muñoz in 2009, says Villalobos, he worked between 15 and 18 hours at a stretch, gathering and snipping onions by the light of a headlamp once the sun had set. When his buckets were full, he would dump the four of them—about 20 gallons’ worth—into a sack, and a foreman would periodically tally his total on a piece card (similar to a time card). If he got tired, he might switch his headlamp to a red bulb and rest in the field, the red light indicating to other workers walking through the dark that someone was lying on the ground ahead. When morning came, he would work until 8 or 9 or 10, and then the foreman would do a final tally on the card—and make deductions for taxes and Social Security—before paying Villalobos, in cash, for the sacks he had picked.

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