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Illegal Campsites Threaten Health of Farm Workers

February 05, 1989|From Associated Press

SALINAS — A family of nine squeezes into an apartment the size of a small studio. Dozens of farm workers share a single house. Others live in their cars or, worse, in bushes.

Housing conditions in 1988 for farm workers in the Salinas and Pajaro valleys about 120 miles south of San Francisco were the worst in decades, according to Monterey County officials.

"I would say this is probably the worst I've seen in farm worker housing in Monterey County from the standpoint of ignoring the health and welfare of the farm worker," said Walter Wong, Monterey County director of environmental health.

"They're putting them in such extreme conditions--such as sleeping on top of pesticide sacks, sleeping in caves, sleeping in the bushes, cooking in dirt in the ground, with no water, no toilets," he said.

Five Camps Shut Down

Wong's agency is charged with licensing farm labor camps and enforcing health codes. In 1988, he set a record by shutting down five illegal camps, but he concedes that for every camp he raided, many others went unreported.

"The fact is there's just going to be more of these extreme substandard housing conditions unless there is more housing developed for the farm worker," he said, adding that landlords and labor contractors are scooping up 100% profits under current conditions.

Conditions are as primitive as any that the "harvest Gypsies" of the Depression era endured, Wong said.

Inspectors found workers and their families living in garages that were divided only with fabric partitions. Workers at one camp used a discarded bathtub for bathing, building a fire beneath it to warm the water.

Monterey County Supervisor Sam Karas toured some of the camps last summer and discovered workers living in outhouses.

"It's really a disgrace," said Crescencio Padilla, a former farm worker and longtime community activist. "I saw the same situation 20 years ago, and it's worse than it was then. We're going backward."

Just over a decade ago, the Salinas Valley enjoyed a reputation for good working and living conditions after a successful organizing drive by the United Farm Workers union. Many growers provided camps for workers.

But conditions have changed since then, and observers cite several pressures that have combined to create the farm worker housing crisis:

The federal amnesty program for illegal aliens attracted a larger stream of workers and family members to an area where housing costs are twice the national average. At least two workers competed for every job last summer. Rents can quickly eat up a worker's monthly earnings. A two-bedroom house in Salinas rents for about $800 a month, while the minimum wage for farm workers is $5 an hour and most workers take home only about $200 to $250 a week.

More families are choosing to live here year-round, filing for unemployment benefits and hoping to find piecework during the off season.

The number of licensed labor camps in the county has fallen from more than 200 during the 1970s to 48 as growers and the government have gotten out of the housing business.

Growers are relying more on independent contractors for their labor supply. The number of contractors in the county has more than tripled in the last three years, according to some estimates, and workers are told that a labor contractor's responsibility is to find jobs, not housing.

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