The Latinization of U.S. Farm Labor

September 25, 2007

Near oceanside, California, farmland nuzzles against upscale townhouses and condominiums.[1] On any clear day, the suburbanites who live there and the passersby on Highway 5 can admire lush green fields of strawberries and tomatoes, adorned with the white sombreros and colorful bandannas worn by Mexican field hands. Romantic as this landscape may appear, it hides the distressing conditions under which people live and work to put food on our tables.

Casual observers do not see that the workers filling harvest buckets earn the lowest incomes and put up with the worst sanitary and housing conditions of any industry in the United States. They rarely get sick days or disability-insurance benefits when their backs give out from lifting heavy bags of fruit. And unions and government agencies seldom come to their aid.

Every two or three decades the plight of hired field workers captures the public interest. John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1938), Edward R. Murrow’ documentary film “Harvest of Shame” (1960), and 1ast year’s report in the Sacramento Bee, “Fields of Pain”, exposed their bitter lot.[2] Between these occasional stirrings of guilt, most people rarely think about the powerless men, women and children who tend the nation’s crops This lack of public exposure may explain why the harsh conditions under which they toil have remained unaltered for decades.

The information that appears in the mass media i often conflicting and misleading. There is still no reliable estimate of the size of the farm labor force, and reliable national data on its demographic characteristics have only been collected in recent years. People’s perceptions of farmworkers have been plagued by two stereotypes. The first results from official statistics and atendency to hold to a view of agriculture inherited from an earlier time.[3] According to the traditional stereotype, family farmers and their relatives are the principal element in the work force. Hired farmworkers are thought to consist mostly of students, housewives, and short-term migrants whose work supplements that of family farmers. While this picture may have been valid 40 years ago, it is no longer true of today’s labor-intensive farm industries.

The second stereotype holds farmworkers to be undocumented, solo men who recently crossed the border for short-term work. This stereotype is a facile generalization of highly visible pockets of farmworkers, such as peak-season raisin harvesters in Fresno County, California, many of whom undoubtedly match this description. Immigrants do play a crucial role in the farm labor market in most areas. However, most immigrants are not short term visitors, but veteran U.S. farmworkers who are available year-round and rely on U.S. farm work for their livelihood. Moreover, many farmworkers, especially in the areas farthest from Mexico, were born in the United States.

U.S. agriculture has always maintained a strong demand for heavy hand labor-tasks that require long hours of going up and down ladders, and bending over in die field. Government policies and recruitment efforts by growers that this demand set in motion led to successive waves of immigrants from Latin America. The “Latinization” of labor-intensive farm areas across the country has assured farm employers an ample supply of workers. But the steady influx of immigrants has become an obstacle for the betterment of working conditions, weakening the ability of farmworkers to improve their lot.

Conditions that farmworkers face may have grown worse, not better, in recent decades. It is true that the federal government spends over half a billion dollars a year on farmworker programs in job training, education and health. The federal and some state governments have passed laws seeking to control employer abuses against farmworkers. And more states cover farmworkers for unemployment insurance and public assistance than a generation ago. However, most farmworkers do not benefit from these positive changes.

The real wages they earn, for example, are lower now than they were at the beginning of the 1980s.[4] Despite farmworker education programs, most complete fewer than nine years of schooling. Similarly, stricter labor laws have not eliminated the problem of poor working conditions. One in ten farmworkers does not have a bathroom at the work site, one in ten has no access to drinking water, five in ten are not covered by unemployment insurance, six in ten are not covered by workers compensation, and eight in ten are not covered by health insurance. Furthermore, despite widespread poverty among farmworkers, eight in ten do not benefit from any type of social assistance.[5]

In Oceanside, California, just north of San Diego, hundreds of homeless immigrants, waiting for the chance to earn the minimum wage, camp in fields. In Immokalee, Florida, thousands of young unaccompanied Latin Americans are overcharged for crowded spaces in trailers, and for food and drink, while they await jobs in the local fruit and vegetable industry. Farmworkers in both these places suffer a high rate of injury and illness.

The hardships that farmworkers experience originate in their inability to organize for change. As a group they do not ordinarily participate in political action, and despite important short-term and localized successes, they have been unable to sustain a successful trade-union movement. Why is it that farmworkers are unable to muster the political strength to protect their rights? A description of today’s farmworkers may shed light on the cause of their powerlessness.

Although there is no reliable official estimate of the number of hired farmworkers, by combining several sets of government data, we know there are at least 2.25 million.[6] All numbers in this article are based on this conservative estimate.

Today’s farm labor force is predominately male. Three out of four farmworkers are men or boys. This means that at least 1.6 million farmworkers are male and 600,000 are female. Farmworkers are also mostly foreign born; over one-half were born in Mexico. Two out of five farmworkers were boot in the United States, of whom over half are non- Latino whites, about a third are Latinos, and fewer than one-tenth are blacks. Overall, about seven in ten farmworkers are Latinos, counting both U.S. and foreign born. The overwhelming majority of native-born workers do non-harvest jobs in areas far from the Mexican border.

Farmworkers are relatively young: their median age is 31; more than one in five is under 22. Farmworkers are poorly educated. This is especially true of the foreignborn who have a median sixth-grade education, compared to a median eleventh-grade education among the U.S. born. Certain groups are particularly disadvantaged. For example, those Latin American immigrants who speak indigenous languages average two years of schooling. Most farmworkers also face a language barrier in the United States. About two out of three farmworkers speak Spanish as their principal language. Only about a quarter speak English well.

An extraordinarily high proportion of this nation’s farmworkers––two out of five––are migrants.[7] Seven out of ten of these are Mexican men. Migrants are almost all either foreign-born or U.S.-born Latinos. Only 3% of migrants are non-Latino U.S.-born workers.

Income levels for farmworker families are perhaps the lowest for any “employed” occupational group. Farmworkers make, on average, $5.10 per hour; their median income is $7,500 a year. Nearly one-half of all farmworkers live below the poverty threshold and nearly half own no property apart from their personal belongings.

These special obstacles––migration, low income, and lack of education and English language skills––in part explain farmworkers’ inability to improve the harsh conditions under which they live and work. A deeper examination of the problem, however, suggests that their powerlessness is based on labor-market patterns which developed early in the post-World War II period.

The small family farm is no longer the typical setting for hired labor. From 1945 to 1987, the number of farms fell from almost six million to two million, while the average farm size more than doubled.[8] As family fart ners left the land, the proportion of hired labor rose steadily. By 1987, over a third of farm work was done by hired workers. Moreover, a small group of large-scale producers hired a greater and greater proportion of these workers. This is especially true for the vegetable, fruit and horticultural industries. By 1987, the top 35,000 farms (or 4% of the total) paid over threequarters of the nation’s farm-wage bill.[9]

In the immediate postwar decades, technological change cut the demand for labor. New methods were implemented for many of the most arduous picking and lifting tasks. Perhaps the most important contribution was made by the bin and the forklift. Prior to their use in the fields, every box was “swamped” by hand onto a truck bed. Other important developments were “shake-and-catch” harvesters for processed fruit and nuts, the “lift-and-catch” method for tomato and cotton harvests, diggers for root plants, spray towers, planters and thinners. But the labor-displacing effects of these innovations fizzled out by the late 1960s, and the overall demand for hand labor, which fell from 1945-1965, levelled off.

In the last two decades, demand for heavy hand tasks has probably increased. One contributing factor has been the shift in consumer demand from canned to fresh and frozen products. The fresh product area continues to be labor-intensive since most mechanization took place within the processed-foods industry. There is little direct evidence of increasing labor demand, but two trends are clear: First, technological change has not displaced many workers from labor-intensive field tasks.[10] And second, the output of fruits, vegetables and horticulture, all of which require considerable hand labor, has increased markedly since 1970.[11]

After World War II, immigrants (especially Mexicans) began to fill the increasing demand for heavy hand tasks. Government policy was aimed at maintaining the “temporary” or “guest worker” status of these workers and at targeting them to harvest and do otherfield tasks in certain farm industries. But, almost immediately, two mutually reinforcing trends took hold. The legal guest workers or “braceros,” numbering half a million some years, were shadowed by large groups of undocumented workers who absconded from their labor contracts or came across the U.S.-Mexico border without papers.[12] And groups of workers systematically got access to legalization programs through their experience as U.S. workers. The legal workers created “beachheads” where their undocumented relatives and friends could land and often find job leads. As a result, job-seeking networks of mostly Mexican immigrants were given a quasi-legal status from the early postwar years. By the 1970s Mexican immigrants had come to dominate the farm labor force in California, Texas and other Southwestern states.

Another factor encourages immigration: agricultural production has become concentrated by region and has moved farther from large population centers. These moves have inade farm work less accessible to U.S.-based workers. For example, part of the California citrus industry moved to the Arizona desert and to the Orange Belt at the foothills of the Sierras, far away from the population centers in Southern California. These increasingly isolated farms have attracted a declining proportion of its work force from urban (or even rural) areas of the United States.

The influx of Latin American farmworkers has not been smooth or continuous. Network migration includes periods characterized by surges of pioneer male workers followed by years of settlement as the men form families. The present period appears dominated by solo male migrants after one of settlement in the late 1970s and early 1980s.[13] At present, for about one in ten farmworkers, this is his or her first year of work in U.S. agriculture, and about one in three return to Mexico for a month or more each year. [14]

The legalization and settlement of some farmworkers and the simultaneous influx of the undocumented have continued up to the present day despite the passage of restrictive employer sanction provisions under the Imaiigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. Indicators show that the law probably had a counterproductive effect. In the 1988-1989 period, many one-time immigrants, fearing they might miss their last chance to become legalized, entered the country to claim their papers. Embryonic networks were enfranchised with legal workers, and established networks were deepened with the unusually large influx of those years. The result seems to have been an increase in the number of Mexican farmworkers in the United States, without a decrease in the normal rate of flow across the border.[15]

The continuing demand for heavy hand labor on large, isolated farms combined with the influx of large numbers of Latin American immigrants into agriculture is leading to the “Latinization” of rural North America. The process begins with Latin American immigrants being absorbed in the harvest tasks (about 40 to 45% of the total) and then spreads to the pre-harvest, post-harvest and finally the skilled jobs. Latinization began in California and Texas, expanded to the Northwest and Florida, and is making major inroads across the country wherever fruits, vegetables, nursery plants or other labor-intensive crops are grown.

As Latinization spreads, poor working and living conditions are likely to accompany it, at least temporarily. Increasing Latin American immigration has meant that more workers rely on farm-labor contractors as middlemen and that more of them are very young. These overlapping subgroups receive worse treatment than other workers. Over a third of farmworkers aged 14 to 17 lack either water or a toilet in the field. They are also the age group least likely to be covered by medical insurance. Similarly, employees of farm-labor contractors experience, on average, worse conditions than direct hires. Contractors, who hire almost exclusively immigrants, pay less, give fewer benefits, and charge for equipment needed for the job more frequently than growers do.[16]

Compared to the immigrants in older, more established immigrant regions, the foreign bom in newer areas are younger, fewer are married or have family with them in the United States, a higher proportion work for farmlabor contractors, and a larger percentage work without proper legal papers. In the older areas, friends and relatives provide not only job tips allowing newcomers to avoid unscrupulous middlemen, but also housing and information about access to social-service and insurance programs.[17]

Latinization of new immigrant areas is taking place in the Midwest, Northeast and Southeast. One example is the fresh mushroom industry of Chester County, Pennsylvania. The production tasks in this local labor market shifted to Mexicans from Puerto Ricans and other U.S. citizens in the mid-1980s. By the early 1990s, some skilled jobs were also being done by Mexicans.[18]

The absorption of Latinos is also occurring in the peach industry of Georgia and South Carolina. Black workers in Georgia peach harvesting were replaced by Mexicans in the 1993-1984 period. This same process occurred in South Carolina in the late 1980s. In Georgia, Mexicans also predominate in pre-harvest tasks, but post-harvest and skilled work is still done mostly by local blacks and older white women.[19] Another case of Latinization is taking place in the Piedmont flue-cured tobacco growing area of North Carolina and Virginia. Here, in the early 1980s black harvesters were replaced by Mexicans. The somewhat more pleasant jobs of transplanting and barn work (hanging the leaves) continue to be done to some extent by local white women and blacks, but this too is changing.[20] The Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) found that most harvest tasks, even in the newer settlement areas, are now done by Latin American immigrants.[21]

The Latin American influx means greater vulnerability for the farmworker population not only in newly Latinized regions, but in the aggregate farmworker population. As foreign-born workers replace the native bom, the school-based skills and English-language aptitude of the farmworker population fall.[22] Furthermore, the influx of workers from abroad often results in an abundance of available workers, making it less likely that they can organize for change.

Latinization also presents special problems for the provision of social services. First, since the inimigrarit population is spreading to areas bereft of a bilingual infrastructure, it may prove difficult for farmworkers to gain access to services. This problem is particularly acute or small language groups that speak neither Spanish or English, such as Haitians, Laotians and indigenous Latin Americans. These language-minority populations form a significant portion of the agricultural labor force in Florida, California and other states. Further, in times of natural disasters common to agriculture suchas freezes, droughts or floods, the non-English speaking and poorly educated population is particularly at risk and may not receive any services. Finally, the planning process is rendered cumbersome by the fact that the standard data series often miss this population, particularly its most needy members.

Trends that took root after World War II transformed the farm labor force. The stagnation of technology after 1970 and the related high demand for workers in the fruit, vegetable and horticultural industries were both causes and effects of the absorption of a new labor force, most of it from Latin America. The over-abundant supply of Latin American workers and their low educational and language levels have overwhelmed governmental efforts to deliver social services and enforce labor standards.

To meet sustained demand for labor-intensive farm activities, U.S. employers, often with the cooperation of the U.S. government, stimulated network migration from Mexico and Central America. The assumption was that this migration would be temporary, would rely predominantly on solo males, and would not lead to long-term social costs. However, as in temporary worker situations in other industrialized countries, the presumed “homing pigeons” do not go home. Most of these immigrant farmworkers are available for U.S. farm work for the long term and rely on it for most of their earnings from year to year. Historical trends indicate that the majority of these workers end up staying in the United States, and many attract friends and relatives.

Now we are faced with deep-rooted patterns of migration to U.S. rural areas. A large influx of Latin American workers, now predominant in all farm tasks in the older settlement areas and in the harvest tasks in the newer areas, has met and surpassed the demand for workers. These same demographic changes have discouraged farmworkers from organizing, thus permitting employers to continue a labor system which exposes much of the labor force to stagnating living conditions and labor standards. There will be no easy or low-cost solutions to the social problems these trends imply.

Farmers and government officials rightfully tout U.S. agriculture as the most productive in the world. But can we enjoy the fruits of an industry that relies on the hardship of hundreds of thousands of people? Farmworkers’ problems carry the inertia of decades of history, but improvements in labor conditions in other industries have overcome daunting historical forces. The first step is to dislodge the myths which distort our vision of the Latin Americans who harvest our food. Until the picturesque fields of colorful workers fill us with shame, not pride, the plight of the farmworker is unlikely to change.

Richard Mines researches agricultural labor conditions for the U.S. Department of Labor; Beatriz Boccalandro and Susan Gabbard work at Aguirre International, a survey research firm in San Mateo, California.

1. The ideas expressed in this essay are the opinions of the authors and in no way reflect an official position of the U. S. Department of Labor.
2. “Fields of Pain,” Sacramento Bee Special Report, Dec. 11, 1991.
3. The main data source, for this view are the Decennial Census and the Current Population Survey. The inability of these surveys to find important subsets of the population leads to sampling errors which systematically exclude new immigrants and the poorest workers.
4. See Farm Labor published by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistical Service for the years since 1980. For wage stagnation before the 1980s, see Sue E. Hayes, “Farm and Nonfarm Wages, 1948- 1977, in Technological Change, Farm Mechanization, and Agricultural Employment (Univ. of California, Division of Agricultural Sciences, Pub. 4085, 1978).
5. Richard Minus, Susan Gabbard and Beatriz Boccalandro, Findings from, the National Agricultural Workers Survey, 1990: A Demographic and Employment Profile of Perishable Crop Farm Workers (Washington: Office at Program Economics, DOL, Research Report No. 1, July 1991) pp. 74-75.
6. We used payroll data from the U.S. Agricultural Census, of 1987 (about $13 billion), the 3987 USDA wage estimate from Farm Labor of $4.87, and the turnover rate from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) of about 1.7 employees per worker to calculate that them are at least 2.25 million farmworkers. Unless otherwise cited, the data contained in this section comes from Richard Mine,, Susan Gabbard and Beatriz, Boccalandro, Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey, and from Richard Mines, Susan Gabbard, and Ruth Samindick, Field Workers in Crop Agriculture: A Profile, (Washington: Office of Program Economics, US Department of Labor, Research Report No. 3, forthcoming 1992).
7. A migrant is defined by DOL’s National Agricultural Workers Survey as a worker who has moved 75 miles to take or look for a U.S. farmjob. This includes workers who move from one place to another in the United States (follow-the-crop migrants) and those who work at one place in the United States but return annually to Mexico (back-and-forth migrants).
8. Victor Oliveira, “Trends in the Hired Farm Work Force, 1945-1987” (Washington: USDA/ERS. 1989).
9. Agricultural Census, 1987 (Washington: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1989), vol. 1, part 51, p. 11.
10. K.G. Brown, “Fruit Mechanization in the USA,” Proceedings of the International Symposium on Fruit, Nut, and Vegetable Harvesting Mechanization, ASAE, St. Joseph MU 1983.
11. Economic Research Service (ERS), Situation and Outlook Reports (Washington: USDA, 1991).
12. Richard Mines, Developing a Community Tradition of Migration, Monograph #3 (San Diego: U.S.-Mexican Study Center, University of Califoinia, 1981).
13. The proportion of women in the farm work population was about 25%, in 1966, 33% in 1983 and then returned to 25%, in 1990 in California. See California Assembly, The Calfornia Farm Labor Force: A Profile, 1969; Richard Mines and Philip Martin, A Profile of California Farmworkers (Giannini Information Series, No, 86-2, 1986); and “California: Findings from the NAWS,” ASP Research Report #4, U.S. DOT./ASP, (forthcoming 1992).
14. Richard Mines, Susan Gabbard and Ruth Santandick, Field Workers in Crop Agriculture.
15. Catherine Donato, Jorge Durand, and Douglas Massey, “Stemming the Tide? Assessing the Deterrent Effects of the Immigration Reform and Control Act,” Demography, May 1992.
16. Richard Mines, Susan Gabbard and Ruth Samardick, Field Workers in Crop Agriculture.
17. lbid.
18. Private conversation with Robert Smith, student of the Mushroom industry and Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, April 1992.
19. Private communication with David Griffith and Sandy Arriendola, April 1992. Griffith is a professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. Amendola is a private consultant in Washington, D.C.
20. U.S. General Accounting Office, ‘The H2A Program, Protections for U.S. Fantrovorkers,” PEMD-89-3, 1988.
21. Richard Mines, Susan Gabbard and Ruth Samardick, Field Workers in Crop Agriculture.
22. Educational levels fell markedly in California from 1966 to 1983; since then they have improved slightly (California Assembly and Giannini Foundation, CANAWS report). Once the areas become largely Latinitizied as California has been for some time, then the process of decline will level off and may even reverse slightly if the educational level of the immigrants increases. But this new educational and English-language status quo will be at a very low level.

Tags: US immigration, agriculture, farm labor, Latinos

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