MAXWELL:  Migrants ask only for what they’ve earned

12/7/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In the foreword of the book Migrant Agricultural Workers in America’s Northeast, then-U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale describes migrant laborers as “one of the hardest working yet most essential elements of our nation’s work force . . . .”

Mondale’s words, written nearly 30 years ago, are just as true today. And, equally true, America still undervalues the human worth of those who stoop to harvest our produce, some of the most inexpensive food in the world.

Moreover, farmers continue to exploit migrant workers, reducing them to a class without political or economic power.

Here in Immokalee, about 35 miles southeast of Fort Myers, tomato growers exploit migrant workers by paying them low wages and by denying them benefits _ health insurance, overtime pay and vacation _ the rest of us take for granted.

As of this writing, however, Immokalee’s tomato industry may be changing as at least two companies consider raising the wages of their pickers for the first time in 20 years.

But this change is not occurring because farmers are feeling altruistic. On Dec. 3, in fact, more than 1,000 laborers, roughly half of all Immokalee tomato pickers, stayed away from the fields. Government officials as far away as Mexico, Japan and China are watching events here.

Last month, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community-based labor organization, sent a letter to the area’s 10 growers asking them to increase the bucket rate that pickers earn. The letter was backed by 2,000 cards signed by pickers. Only one company, Gargiulo Inc., responded to the letter, and its officials are negotiating with the coalition, a move that has angered other growers.

At issue: Since 1977, the income of Immokalee tomato pickers has been declining. They toil under a piece-work system that, on average, pays 40 cents per bucket. And, perhaps worst of all, many companies use a scheme called “day and a dime,” paying workers minimum wage and 10 cents per bucket.

“We find this system, a hybrid of piece work and hourly pay, to be one of the most devious ever invented,” said strike leader Greg Asbed of the coalition. “It takes the incentive of hard work of new workers _ who don’t understand the system _ and encourages them to work to exhaustion. But it is really paying by the hour.”

Some workers, for example, can pick as many as 200 buckets a day, which under the piece rate earns them about $80 a day. If these same pickers work under day and a dime, they would earn $4.75 an hour, plus 10 cents a bucket, or about $60 a day.

Tomato industry representatives readily claim, however, that pickers average $8 to $10 per hour. Yes, that may be true in some cases, but the claim is completely misleading. It ignores the fact that workers are not paid when they do not pick. If the weather is bad, and workers are in the fields for, say, one hour in a given day, they might indeed earn $10 for that one hour. But that is all they earn _ for the entire day. Industry figures on wages, therefore, are nearly always bogus.

Other variables also influence the income of pickers. Sometimes, when tractor trailers that haul the crops are unavailable, pickers cannot work and are sent home. Workers also must travel between fields. Depending on the length of the trip, the number of actual work hours can vary from as many as 10 to as few as two.

The bottom line is that tomato pickers, mostly single men from Guatemala, Haiti and Mexico, struggle to survive on earnings of about $8,500 a year. Most of these workers send money back home to their families.

Asbed wants to see the piece rate increased to 60 cents per bucket and the day-and-a-dime scheme permanently dropped.

“Field work is some of the hardest work there is, and you get a little bit poorer each time you go to work,” he said. “The cost of living goes up every year _ what you pay for food goes up, health care goes up, transportation goes up, utilities go up, clothing goes up _ but your wages don’t go up.”

High rent and related living conditions are among the most serious problems workers face. The average person in Immokalee pays $250 a week for a shack or a dilapidated single-wide trailer that he shares with eight to 10 others.

“You’re sleeping on a mattress on the floor,” Asbed said. “You’re showering in cold water because by the time eight guys shower, no hot water is left; cooking in shifts in the morning, having to wake up at 3 to cook your lunch for the day; no air conditioning. It’s miserable.”

He and other farm-worker advocates are hopeful that Gargiulo, Collier County’s largest tomato grower, will raise the bucket rate. Most analysts say that because of bad weather, strong foreign competition and government regulations, the Florida tomato industry is at a crossroads.

A report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service indicates, for example, that Collier fell as the state’s top tomato producer during 1996. Last year’s $78.8-million crop slipped 29.3 percent from the previous season.

Wayne Hawkins, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, said that the number of growers dropped from 231 in 1990-91 to less than 75 today. He said that 24 major packing houses closed during the last four years alone.

While acknowledging the industry’s economic woes, Asbed argues that growers must understand and act on the symbiotic relationship between themselves and their pickers.

“The future of the tomato industry can’t be divorced from the future of its workers,” he said. “For the industry to prosper, its workers will have to earn living wages in the fields. Raising wages is an advantage to industry as well as to the community. Raising the bucket rate to 60 cents is perfectly feasible. They had better do it if we’re going to survive as a profitable industry.”