Apple Pickers

September 25, 2007


At the outset of this past fall's East Coast apple harvest, most of the almost 1,000 Puerto Ricans who had been recruited as apple pickers by the U.S. and Puerto Rican Departments of Labor, found themselves here without either jobs or money. More often than not they were left pacing the lobby of a Holiday Inn while government officials, apple growers and the courts carried out their yearly ritual of bargaining over who would pick the season's apple harvest. In the end, despite the readiness of the Puerto Rican workers, West Indians were flown in from the Caribbean to fill most of the jobs.

Why the West Indians were given preference over Puerto Rican workers is not immediately apparent given that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 stipulates that foreign workers can obtain temporary visas to work in U.S. agriculture only when "unemployed persons capable of performing such service or labor cannot be found in this country." As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are supposed to have a crack at agricultural jobs before foreign workers can be hired.


For three decades prior to 1975, Puerto Ricans had been contracted by the thousands in the tobacco fields and fruit and vegetable farms of the Eastern United States. They came to the mainland under a program first instituted by the Commonwealth in the late 1940s. Under the jurisdiction of Puerto Rican Public Law 87 since 1962, all Puerto Ricans recruited off the island for domestic or farm labor must be covered by contracts negotiated by the employers with the Puerto Rican Secretary of Labor.


Finding a continuing labor surplus on its hands, the Commonwealth decided to find employment for Puerto Ricans in the East Coast apple harvest, a crop where its farm workers had not previously been employed in significant numbers. There was a catch, however, in that many of the jobs were being filled by temporary foreign workers from the West Indies, primarily Jamaica, a labor force the growers had been employing for decades. Because of their U.S. citizenship Puerto Ricans seemingly should be given preference over foreign workers, but the growers strongly prefer Jamaicans precisely because they are not citizens and are therefore more controllable.

Unlike Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans can be deported. Complaints about conditions have frequently led to workers being sent home. While Puerto Ricans can leave intolerable conditions and seek other jobs or public assistance within the country, the Jamaicans are a relatively captive work force and tend, in the growers words, to be "docile and diligent."

1975 was the first year in which the Commonwealth sought jobs for its migrants in the orchards extending from Maine to Virginia. They were met by fierce opposition from the growers, whose legal manuverings and physical harassment of workers over the following years have amply illustrated the depth of their commitment to maintain the steady flow of Jamaican labor. Not only have Puerto Ricans been effectively excluded from apple picking, but the growers have been able to increase the number of West Indians who pick apples. In 1975 the Commonwealth recruited 2,600 Puerto Ricans for the apple harvest, but under pressure by the growers' Farm Labor Executive Committee, the U.S. Department of Labor certified a shortage of domestic workers, an act which led to the authorized importation of 4,800 Jamaican workers.

The logic of this decision, as presented by Department of Labor officials, was that the "vanguard rights and benefits" offered by the Commonwealth's PL 87 exceeded federal regulations. Since the Commonwealth would not let Puerto Ricans work under the lesser conditions offered by the growers, conditions whicn met federal standards, the Department of Labor could not force the growers to accept the contract. Puerto Rican farm workers were, therefore, considered to be "unavailable" and the growers were permitted to hire foreign laborers.

This decision was upheld in a federal court which called the provisions of PL 87 "extensive and onerous insofar as the employers were concerned." The provisions at issue required that the growers provide three hot meals a day (at the workers expense), non-occupational disability insurance, and a bond to guarantee they would comply with the contract. The Commonwealth has argued that far from being excessive, similar minimal protections should be made a part of federal law.

Over the next two years growers were able to avoid hiring more than 600 Puerto Ricans despite attempts by the U.S. and Puerto Rican Departments of Labor to alter the situation. Those few who did obtain contract jobs often faced what seems to have been systematic harassment.


This fall the Puerto Rican Department of Labor arranged the recruitment of 2,300 workers to pick apples. To avoid the obstacle of PL 87 the Commonwealth's Secretary of Labor used a recent amendment of the law to introduce selective exemptions. With this procedure apple growers were exempted from having to comply with the law's "onerous" provisions, although workers in other crops were still fully protected. The plan did not work.

Of the 992 Puerto Ricans who actually arrived at the orchards only 368 found the jobs originally promised. In Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland 424 Puerto Ricans were turned away by growers who said that there were no longer any jobs available. The apple growers of those three states had already hired 1,784 Jamaicans and did not want to hire more pickers. Some growers claimed not to have been informed of the exemption policy. After passing a week in $20-a-day motel rooms, a number of the recruits were shipped home and others were taken by bus to New York where they were told the same story. Some 1,952 Jamaicans were already hard at work.

What had happened, speculated Howard Sher of the Migrant Legal Action Program, was that: "most likely, the growers overestimated to the U.S. Department of Labor the number of workers they needed." Since the Commonwealth could not supply this entire number, the Department of Labor certified a labor shortage for the balance and the growers were allowed to hire foreign workers. In fact the number of Jamaicans who were allowed to enter the country were able to fill most of the growers' labor needs. As a result the government ended up wasting $260,000 of taxpayers' money and the time and energy of hundreds of Puerto Rican workers shuttling them around the country from motel room to motel room looking for non-existent jobs.

Conditions were not much better for those Puerto Ricans who were hired. Many were fired after a three day trial period allegedly for being unskilled and unproductive. Others were harassed by growers who failed to provide barracks heating, adequate toilet facilities or palatable food, "oversights" apparently intended to force the workers to quit.

To keep the growers from using foreign workers at the expense of domestic workers, the United Farm Workers and the National Association of Farmworker Organizations have launched a campaign to abolish the temporary foreign worker program. Groups interested in the welfare of foreign farm workers have criticised the campaign for its chauvinism. In any case, success in ending the program in the near future is doubtful as its expansion is being looked upon with increasing favor in Washington. Since the existence of vast petroleum deposits in Mexico was confirmed last month, letting temporary foreign workers enter the country is being discussed as a bargaining chip to trade for access to the oil. Immigration and Naturalization Commissioner, Leonel Castillo has recently been talking of letting in as many as 500,000 temporary Mexican workers. In this context protecting apple picking or other farm jobs for Puerto Ricans and other domestic workers will become a more difficult goal to accomplish.

Tags: US agriculture, apple industry, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, contract labor

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