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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.

Photo Credit: Richard Thornton /


This article was produced by  The American Prospect magazine and the  Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, non-profit journalism organization focusing on food, agriculture and environmental health. It appears in the Prospect's current issue and was reprinted with permission.

One morning earlier this year, in the borderland town of Brawley, California, 75-year-old Ignacio Villalobos perched on a chair in his trailer, removed a plastic bag from the well of a rubber boot, and finished dressing for work. Dawn was still an hour away, and in the wan light of the kitchen, Villalobos took off his house sandals and pulled the bag over his right foot. He bunched it at the ankle, then slipped his foot into his boot.

“These shoes aren’t made for water,” he said, adding that morning dew and irrigation keep farm fields damp—even in the desert of the Imperial Valley where he was working. Villalobos estimated that a pair of decent used boots would run him $30, almost half a day’s wages; the bags were free.

Villalobos moved quietly, trying to keep from waking his grown nephew, Roberto, who was sleeping in the back bedroom of the trailer. For years, Villalobos and his partner, Juana, had raised Roberto, whom they had taken in as an infant. Then, last year, Juana died after battling diabetes and heart disease, leaving the two men on their own. Villalobos tied his boot before repeating the process with his left foot and grabbed a bag of bologna sandwiches he had made that morning. By 6:15 A.M. he was out the door.

At 6:30, Villalobos was sitting in a parking lot on the east side of town, watching the sunrise from his rusted Ford Blazer. He was the first to arrive at the lot, an empty plain of gravel and sand ringed by a corrugated aluminum fence. Other workers began to arrive, waiting in their cars for the 7:30 bus that would take them to the fields. Most, Villalobos included, had U.S. citizenship (or legal permission to work) and a coveted position on a union crew, guaranteeing them steady work harvesting. But Villalobos had seen enough in nearly seven decades of field labor that he remained wary of any promise of job security. Showing up early was a preventive measure, intended to guarantee his spot cutting broccoli rabe and reduce the risk of losing a day’s wages.

In late March, Villalobos became a plaintiff in a wide-ranging labor-abuse suit against a former employer, Juan Muñoz Farm Labor Contractor. The company is one of several that lawyers say were hired by Calandri/SonRise Farms in 2009 and 2010 to harvest onions for its SonRise label, a brand sold across the U.S. and abroad. A second defendant, Maui Harvesting, faces claims from another plaintiff, Adalberto Gomez. Two women alleged to be operating as unlicensed farm-labor contractors are also named as defendants. The case alleges that while Gomez and Villalobos picked onions across the Coachella and Central valleys in California, the contractors routinely altered payment documents to undercount hours worked; failed to pay the state’s minimum wage of $8 an hour or overtime; failed to provide safe or sanitary working conditions; and housed the workers in unsafe and unsanitary living quarters. Significantly, Calandri/SonRise Farms was also named as a defendant in the suit, meaning it was not absolved of responsibility because it had outsourced its harvesting work.

Compared with other recent tales of American farmworkers, Villalobos and Gomez might consider themselves lucky. In Florida, tomato pickers have been locked in box trucks under the watch of armed guards; in North Carolina, pregnant workers have been exposed to pesticides during harvest and birthed babies with missing limbs; in Michigan, children as young as six have been found laboring in blueberry groves. Those are marquee cases that garner national media, shining the spotlight on the most egregious abuses. In relative terms, suits like Villalobos are mundane, but they are also ubiquitous, filed with a frequency that suggests the most pervasive and insidious abuse faced by farmworkers is the kind Villalobos encountered: the blatant disregard of labor laws governing wages, safety, and health. This type of abuse is most typically seen in fields managed not by farmers but by farm-labor contractors, many of whom started out as farmworkers themselves.

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