Outsourcing Abuse: How Farm Workers Are Being Cheated Out of Their Hard-Earned Money
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Villalobos spends his Saturdays cleaning house, and on a weekend visit to him, I found him tending to the narrow strip of yard he had planted with aloe and mesquite. He had already smoothed the blankets that protect the loveseat and sofa from his three dogs, wiped down the countertops and stove in the kitchen, and washed the week’s dishes that had collected in the sink. Last, he tidied the small shrine he kept on top of the dryer for Juana, whom he was with for 40 years. He made sure to replenish the glass of water he kept for her and to dust out another that sits empty, representing air for her to breathe. In the wake of her death, his relationship with Roberto had become closer to roommate than parent. Since his nephew spends most of his time working at a gas station or with friends, most of Villalobos’s companionship now comes from the dogs.
He was looking forward to the end of the broccoli rabe harvest, when he would begin collecting unemployment and rest up before the onion harvest began again in April. He had skipped the onion fields last year, unwilling to travel far from home after Juana’s death, but now he needed the steady work. “Where else am I going to go? How many years do I have left? I have to go to a job where I know what I’m going to make,” he said.
By late summer, Villalobos’s lawyers remained optimistic if tight-lipped about the case’s prospects. Knowing and naming the grower was a promising fact, as was the possession of piece cards documenting the problem. Yet the case was otherwise dispiritingly similar to hundreds of others that had come before it—workers cheated, problem documented, complaint filed. It will probably be months before the case is decided or settled, and it will be years before anyone knows if it manages to achieve its true goal: pushing contractors and growers to pay honest wages as a matter of course.
Villalobos told me several times that he knew he had many advantages: work experience, legal citizenship, facility though not fluency in English. This acknowledgment was almost always a prelude to discussions about wages and work hours, the lack of respect he felt from his employers, and the difficulty of watching Juana die. He had traveled all over California and the Southwest and had lifted himself from a dirt-floor hut in the woods to a life with a trailer and a truck. But when I visited him for the final time, after the case had been filed, he sat on the floor of his trailer, rusted onion shears and worn work gloves spread out in front of him, and said without preface: “If I look back, I didn’t do anything in my life. I have to do something to defend myself and those who come after me. I would like to see some change before I die.”
For generations of Americans, immigrants and otherwise, farmwork has been the first rung on the long ladder leading to the nation’s middle class. Fieldwork is a “gateway” job, says Williams, the advocate with Florida Legal Services. “Only about one in ten undocumented workers work in agriculture,” he says. “But if you ask undocumented workers, ‘What was your first job in the U.S.?’ a great many would tell you that it was in agriculture.”
As the last generation of farmworkers rose up that ladder, filtering into the economy, the dynamic shifted, says Greg Schell, a colleague of Williams’s. More farmworkers now stay in the fields—or return to Mexico—and fewer American jobs offer markedly better opportunities. “When I came out of law school, my hope was some day, I’d see farmworkers approach the economic mainstream. The things that made their employment so unusual—contractors, wage theft—would disappear, and they’d look more like the general workforce,” he says. “That has happened, but it’s happened in the wrong direction. What’s happened is the general population is looking more like farmworkers.”