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New Status Spurs Hope for Farm Workers

November 12, 1986|HARRY BERNSTEIN

The nation's recently enacted and still-untried immigration reform law brings with it the promise of significant improvement in the lives of illegal alien farm workers--if their new legal status gives them the courage to report abuses by farm labor contractors and growers.

Reporting alone will not be enough, of course. Until alleged abuses are vigorously prosecuted by state and federal labor law enforcement officers, they will continue. Enforcement now is lax, but, clearly, reporting crime is a critical first step toward curbing the abuses.

California's Division of Labor Standards Enforcement and the U.S. Department of Labor are both supposed to be enforcing a host of protective laws that are intended to guarantee such things as wages of at least $3.35 an hour, overtime rates of pay and a safe, healthy work environment.

The trouble is that most farm workers in the Southwest, and particularly those in California, are illegal aliens who rarely make use of protective labor laws because they fear deportation to their native countries if they go to the authorities with their complaints. They fear deportation because wages and conditions in their own countries are frequently worse than those in the United States.

Illegal aliens seldom complain to federal or state authorities even when they are forced to pay bribes to unscrupulous, unlicensed farm labor contractors to get jobs or when they are charged rent for "housing" in shacks, camper shells, junked cars or caves they dig themselves.

They usually accept their pay, often only in unrecorded cash, without question, regardless of the amount they are given.

This outrageous situation isn't going to change quickly, but it can change.

All of the worst abuses of farm workers here illegally violate one or more state or federal laws. Since most abuses are unreported, they continue. A few lawsuits have been filed on behalf of workers by California Rural Legal Assistance, with little result so far.

The hope for change lies in the coming legalization of the workers' status.

The new immigration law gives special treatment to farm workers who are here illegally. They can get temporary residency if they have lived in this country and have worked in a farm-related industry for at least 90 days between May 1, 1985, and May 1, 1986. (All non-farm aliens here illegally will be granted amnesty only if they can prove "continuous" residence in the United States since Jan. 1, 1982.)

Once protected from the threat of deportation, farm workers might well begin protesting the abuses they once tolerated.

All farm labor jobs are not as bad as they used to be. Wages and job conditions vary widely from grower to grower. In recent years, even though wages are generally still quite low, many farm jobs have improved, especially where no farm labor contractors are involved or where workers are covered by contracts with the United Farm Workers of America, which has long battled against farm labor contracting.

The system of farm labor contracting has been around for nearly a century and is one of the most serious problems facing farm workers.

It works like this: Contractors, who are often not licensed as required by law, recruit work crews, frequently from Mexico. Growers usually pay a contractor the costs of the crews' wages, plus 40% for overhead and profit. The contractor then pays the workers and arranges for their housing.

Obviously, this not only diminishes the growers' responsibility for any workers' problems but adds an incentive for cheating, because the contractors keep every dollar that doesn't go to unprotesting workers, many of whom speak no English.

But by recruiting workers and keeping payroll records, no matter how inadequate, the contractors make life easier for the growers, and so the number of licensed contractors continues to rise. Their ranks have nearly doubled in California in the past decade--they now total more than 1,500. And nobody knows how many unlicensed contractors are selling the labor of workers to growers.

But even as the number of farm labor contractors rises dramatically, labor law enforcement has been reduced significantly. Unannounced field inspections by the state--once the primary enforcement tool--dropped to about 300 last year from more than 2,500 a year in the early 1980s.

Now, most legal action taken by the state against farm labor contractors and growers stems from complaints filed by workers, with few actions resulting from the results of unannounced field inspections.

Harold Ezell, the controversial Western regional director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, is disgusted with the labor contracting system. "They (the contractors) are buying and selling human beings," he fumed recently.

One legal device that could be helpful would be to make growers responsible for abuses perpetrated by the farm labor contractors they employ.

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