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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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Villalobos’s piece cards under Muñoz show that he was being paid $1.23 per sack of onions—a rate that translates to about 1 or 2 cents per pound. No matter how many hours Villalobos spent in the field, his supervisor typically wrote down on his tarjeta, or piece card, that he worked between seven and nine hours. This fraudulent time accounting does two things to obscure the terms of his work. First, it gives the impression that Villalobos can pick onions at a phenomenal rate—as many as 22 sacks per hour. That would have him picking 88 five-gallon buckets—the equivalent of filling the cargo space in a Chevy Tahoe, the largest SUV—every hour, while on his knees. More insidiously, it gives the illusion that his hourly pay ranges from $12 to $27, well in excess of the state’s minimum wage of $8. The sack tallies on his cards are so high that, even if his hours had been counted accurately, he would have still reached minimum wage.

Villalobos’s lawyer claims he earned less. Instead, says Beaman, Villalobos split his check with one and sometimes two other workers who contributed sacks of onions that were credited on Villalobos’s card. Workers frequently share cards to outwit the formal economy. Some lack legal status and thus a Social Security number; others are supplementing unemployment checks. Although they  are paid in cash and off the books, their sacks still need to be accounted for—somewhere. If Villalobos’s cards are calculated for these additional workers and the long overnight shifts, they indicate hourly wages at a fraction of the minimum wage. Villalobos could not confirm that the specific piece cards he had submitted to his lawyers represented multiple workers, although he says that he had shared his card with workers in the past and that it is a common practice among onion workers. Muñoz did not return repeated calls for comment, and Calandri declined to answer questions related to the case.

Documentation for Adalberto Gomez—the second plaintiff in the suit, also in his seventies—more clearly shows how he earned subminimum wages. In 2010, Gomez was picking onions for the labor contractor Maui Harvesting and told his lawyers he typically began work around 3 P.M., worked through the night, and finished around 9 A.M., for an 18-hour day. But his cards don’t reflect those hours. Instead, he was paid for only the sacks he picked, and the hours written on his piece card by his supervisor—as with Villalobos—are a fraction of the time Gomez says he spent in the field. One time card credits him with picking 65 sacks of onions over six hours, earning $1.23 apiece, for a total of $79.95—enough to legally cover a 9-hour shift but not an 18-hour one. Another 18-hour day is shown as lasting 4 hours. On that day, Gomez worked slowly, as might be expected for someone in his seventies, picking only 39 sacks. He earned just $48—less than $3 an hour. Maui, like its co-defendants, declined to answer questions related to the case.

For contractors, paying by the piece guarantees that laborers will work quickly. For growers, the practice guarantees a set cost per unit. But for farmworkers, it erases the relationship between time spent on the job and the money they make—a relationship that most Americans take for granted. What mattered to Villalobos, as with any worker resigned to his fate, was that each sack would bring him closer to his overall target for the day; that’s why he arrived early in hopes of claiming long rows to harvest. The $120 sum that Villalobos used as a benchmark for a successful day was often beyond his reach. It was also less than what he would have earned at minimum wage.

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