My first job out of college was at Starbucks, probably in part because I was a political science major. In Santa Barbara in the mid-1990s, there wasn’t much opportunity—at least that I could find—for someone interested in international relations. As a result, my first job was as a barista that paid a bit above minimum wage. Many of my friends were in the same situation, working as waiters, cooks, and bartenders.
None of us worked in agriculture.
Although I lived in the nation’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables—California—and Santa Barbara county was a major agricultural producer, it never occurred to me to work picking strawberries or broccoli. Only part of this was due to money.
Seasonal crop work wages vary from terrible to decent. Some workers earn below the hourly minimum wage and others earn $12 per hour and beyond. In 2007 the average hourly earnings for crop workers was between $8.65 and $9.35, but because field laborers work two-thirds as many hours as full-time workers, their average annual earnings are about $11,000—right at the poverty line and about one-third of the $35,000 average for nonfarm production workers.
In addition to wages, work benefits for crop workers are meager. Even as a part-time employee at Starbucks, I had access to health insurance. Most crop workers receive no employment-related benefits and do not have health insurance or retirement plans. Farm workers are exempt from most minimum wage and hour guarantees found in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and they are not entitled to overtime pay or mandatory breaks.
Working conditions, not wages and benefits, are a major deterrent to considering agricultural work. Even if you’re lucky enough to find a field work job that pays decently and if you’re a skilled enough worker to earn above the minimum wage, you’ll be laboring in conditions most of us wouldn’t tolerate.
In the worst cases, farm workers are subjected to slave-like conditions. Since 1997—in Florida alone—there have been seven federal slavery convictions related to farm workers, involving more than 1,100 laborers. Most have involved immigrant workers from Haiti and Latin America.
It’s important not to exaggerate the conditions farm workers face. Most don’t work in bondage, but as a 2008 U.S. State Department report on human trafficking asserts, “Migrant labor camps are particularly common settings for labor exploitation and trafficking within the United States.” The report adds, “Poor working and living conditions on farms that employ migrant or seasonal labor are endemic to the U.S. farm industry.”
In a nutshell, field work—as necessary as it is to our sustenance—is demanding at best and dangerous at worst. And that’s why those who don’t have other labor options—specifically recent unauthorized immigrants who don’t speak English, have less than a high school education, and whose immigration status limits their labor mobility—end up doing the work. There have been attempts to entice citizens into agricultural work. They’ve all failed.
The most recent (and famous) effort is the United Farm Workers’ (UFW) “Take Our Jobs” campaign. This campaign, which included a congressional hearing appearance by Stephen Colbert, sought to hire citizens and legal residents to work at farm jobs typically filled by unauthorized workers.
Despite a 9.5 percent unemployment rate and 14.6 million people out of work, the UFW reported that only a handful of people signed up for the farm worker jobs. While this campaign was at least partly a UFW communications and advocacy strategy, serious efforts by state governments have also failed to draw citizens to field work even during times of high unemployment.
During the late 1990s, after Congress passed welfare reform, California Sen. Diane Feinstein insisted on creating a program to place the state’s unemployed into farm jobs in the Central Valley. State and county workforce agencies and grower associations identified the agricultural zones toward which to channel the state’s unemployed, but only a handful of workers were successfully recruited.
In 2006, the Washington state apple industry launched a field worker recruitment campaign in response to a harvest worker shortage. State and county agencies set up advertising, recruitment, and training programs for 1,700 worker vacancies. Ultimately only about 40 were successfully placed.
Manuel Cunha, the leader of a grower organization in California who was involved in the California program in the 1990s, said it wasn’t wages that dissuaded unemployed citizens from taking the farm jobs. “The biggest thing was that it was too hard of work,” Cunha said.