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Deporting the Hand That Feeds Us: How Anti-Immigrant Laws Are Causing a Farm Labor Shortage

If Americans won't do the work, and the U.S. successfully keeps undocumented immigrants out of the country, then who will do it?

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Colbert points to one of the major reasons Americans don’t want these jobs. It’s backbreaking work, often in triple-digit heat. After one day in the fields, he did not suffer any injuries. But many farmworker tasks are repetitive, strenuous and must be done quickly – a recipe for injuries. In her garlic job, McMillan asked around to find out what others did for tendinitis. Her coworkers, nearly all undocumented immigrants from Mexico, recommended over-the-counter remedies like Ben-Gay and Tylenol. She tried these, to little effect. Most of the other workers simply took a day off if they faced health problems. Most did not complain because they feared losing their jobs. It’s the “definition of privilege,” she realized, that she could quit the job and go do something else after hurting her arm.

Another issue is the job’s low pay. By law, McMillan was to earn minimum wage in each job she tried. But she did not. As noted above, she earned minimum wage for sorting peaches, although she was warned to carefully check her paycheck to make sure she was not cheated out of her wages. Wage theft is a problem many farmworkers face. Her grape job did not even pretend to pay minimum wage; she earned $27 for working nine hours. However, in her garlic job, the farm had a “very codified method of cheating workers out of minimum wage,” while making it appear that the workers had received minimum wage.

As is common for farmworkers, the garlic cutters were paid piece-rate: they received a set amount ($1.60) for each bucket of garlic they brought from the fields. To earn minimum wage, one must pick five buckets of garlic per hour. At her best, McMillan picked three per hour, and she did not see anyone do better than four. “I did think it was interesting that nobody I worked with could pick at a rate that was even minimum wage,” she said.

The farm tracked the hour each worker arrived and left, as well as how many buckets of garlic they picked. If McMillan was there for eight and a half hours and picked 25 buckets of garlic, her “field card” would reflect that. But her paycheck would only pay her the $40 she earned for her 25 buckets and it would say that she had only worked five hours in order to give the appearance she was earning minimum wage. The only way the government would know workers were being cheated out of minimum wage would be to check their field cards.

The illegally low wages are well hidden. “I've talked to at least a dozen or more growers and…every single farmer tells you nobody would ever cheat like that,” recalls McMillan. They tell her “you would get in trouble so quickly,” and “maybe there are a few bad apples." In fact, they say the “fields are over-policed” and call farming “the most regulated industry.” She suspects that the growers receive records that make it look like the workers are getting paid minimum wage, and “it looks like it is humanly possible to pick five buckets of garlic in an hour.”

Asking an American citizen to do this work is not simply asking them to work hard for minimum wage. It is asking them to submit to exploitation they should be protected against by law. By turning to undocumented workers who fear deportation or jail and who may not speak English or possess more than a few years of formal education, the industry uses a workforce vulnerable enough to do the work without complaining.

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