Grapes: Declining Pay, Dying Workers
No single crop symbolizes the saga of immigrant labor better than California grapes.
Nearly half a century after Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta led the historic grape strike and boycott of the early 1960s, Latino workers continue to struggle for decent wages and workplace protections as they produce America’s table grapes, raisins and wine.
California’s grape workers earn 1 to 5 cents per pound for clusters they pick. The average wage has dropped to about $5 an hour, far below the state’s minimum wage of $8.
Pay is declining, workers are dying, and fear and discrimination are on the rise, largely because the grape industry has turned to undocumented workers who are easily exploited.
One of civilization’s most delicate and delicious fruits, cultivated since the Bronze Age, grapes have been part of the California “dream” since the 18th century, when Catholic missions transplanted vines from Mexico. Today, the U.S. grape industry generates $3 billion in sales each year.
Virtually all of the country’s table grapes, and 90 percent of its wine, comes from California, which boasts 1 million acres of vineyards. Forty-eight percent of this acreage is used for wine, 40 percent for raisins and 12 percent for table grapes.1
Grape vines require delicate handiwork. Several times a year, they are tied, trained and trimmed to expose grapes to both breezes and sun.
The August-September harvest is a stressful, backbreaking race against rot and rain as table grapes, handled like china, are rushed to market and raisin grapes are dried on paper on the ground. The single most labor-intensive activity in U.S. agriculture is the harvesting of 250,000 acres of raisin grapes near Fresno, a job involving some 30,000 workers.2
After harvest, workers prune 80 percent of the vine back, leaving just enough shoots and buds to optimize grape production year after year.
Latino labor has dominated California’s grape industry since 1942, when the U.S. government created the Bracero program (from the Spanish word brazo, meaning arm). The program, the forerunner of today’s guestworker program, allowed Mexican Braceros to enter the country legally for farm work. The year after it was abolished in 1964, Chavez and Huerta's United Farm Workers won a 40 percent wage increase for grape workers and, eventually, a law to allow farmworker unions. At one time, union contracts covered more than 50,000 grape workers.
But beginning in the 1980s, the industry began to chip away at these gains, using labor contractors to hire undocumented workers. Today, raisin workers are increasingly “non-Spanish speaking indigenous people from southern Mexico and Guatemala,” according to migrant labor expert Philip Martin of the University of California, Davis.3
Because undocumented workers fear being deported, they accept what they can get for their labor. When pruning, they are paid by the “piece” — 13 cents per pruned point. “To earn $80 or $90 a day, you have to do 500,” said Isabel, 39, a Mexican worker. Harvesters earn 1 to 5 cents per pound for grape clusters that sell in grocery stores for $1.40.
The result is that, in the California vineyards made famous by the grape strike, pay has dropped to about $5 an hour, far below California’s minimum wage of $8.4
The workers must also contend with horrendous cold or heat, accidents, a lack of water and shade, and exposure to pesticides. In 2008, a pregnant teenager and a 37-year-old man died of heat stroke while working in vineyards in California’s San Joaquin Valley.5
Florida Tomatoes: A Penny on the Dollar
Arriving on supermarket shelves during the coldest days of the year — loaded with vitamins and antioxidants and the taste of summer — year-round tomatoes are an affordable luxury that Americans take for granted. Each year, we eat 20 pounds per person.
Florida’s migrant tomato pickers earn 45-50 cents for each 32-pound bucket they pick. Grocery chains resist paying even an additional penny per pound to help impoverished farmworkers.
In Florida, the country’s largest producer of freshmarket tomatoes,6 each tomato is hand-made, tended by farmworkers like Delfina, Maria, Teresa and Josefina. Each one takes three months of sweaty, exhausting work in fields covered with poisons. From planting to harvest, day after sunny day, these women toil under dark shadows of exploitation and fear.
More than 33,000 farmworkers, almost all of them undocumented Latinos,7 produce Florida’s annual crop of 1 billion pounds of fresh-market tomatoes, a crop whose wholesale value exceeds $619 million.
The itinerant farmworker makes this all possible. But for every dollar we spend on a supermarket tomato, the field worker who picks it gets just 1 cent.8
Tomatoes are grown on 31,000 acres in south Florida. As seeds are sprouted in greenhouses,workers on foot and tractor plow narrow, raised beds saturated with fumigants that kill everything in the sandy soil. The beds are covered with plastic sheets, and holes are punched 18 to 30 inches apart. Workers then walk the rows, planting 4,000 seedlings per acre. Four-foot stakes are driven between the plants.
A month later, workers prune and tie every plant to twine that is stretched between the stakes. As the plant grows, the twine is adjusted to keep the plant upright and the new tomatoes off the ground.
Over three months, Florida tomato plants and soil are sprayed or dusted with as many as 72 different pesticides. At 217 pounds per acre, this is the greatest use of pesticides in U.S. farming.9 Applied by tractor and hand-held sprayers, the poisons keep the tomatoes free of bugs, diseases and blemishes.
Warnings, protective clothing, washing water and bilingual safety instructions are required, but the rules are often ignored and workers are often exposed while in the fields. They work despite headaches, rashes and vomiting — afraid of losing their meager pay.
The harvest is a frenetic race to hand-pick the tomatoes and get them to the markets. Farmworkers fill a large plastic bucket with 32 pounds of tomatoes and run with it to a truck, where it is dumped into large boxes. For each 32-pound bucket, the worker gets 45 to 50 cents, a wage unchanged in the last 30 years. A worker typically fills 100 to 150 buckets a day, earning a “piecerate” wage of $45 to $75 per day.
Once the tomatoes are picked, the plants are killed with herbicides, the stakes are removed and disinfected, and the plastic sheets and twine are burned.
Under federal law, a farmworker’s weekly pay must equal at least what she would earn under the federal minimum wage for the number of hours worked. But workers often report their paychecks fall short. A day’s work can range from three to 12 hours. Workers are not paid for hours spent waiting for plants to dry in the morning before picking.
A seven-year campaign by the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers to raise tomato workers’ wages by one penny per pound — a 60 percent raise, to 77 cents per bucket — has won support from McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Subway and Burger King. But these corporations buy less than 5 percent of Florida’s tomatoes, relying instead on imports. Still, these courageous actions by workers — organizing to improve their working conditions in the face of overwhelming adversity — have produced only small increases in pay in the industry overall. Supporters hope that a recent agreement between CIW and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange may bring about greater change, but many obstacles remain.
America’s largest supermarkets continue to resist paying one additional penny per pound for tomatoes, even though the cost would be passed directly to consumers who wouldn’t notice a penny in a product that ranges from $1.30 to $3 per pound.
For all their labors, Florida tomato workers live in poverty. They have no job protections. They get no vacation or sick days. Few have health insurance. They reside in temporary, crowded, migrant camps of rundown trailers, shacks and tenement apartments. If they have legal immigration status, they are eligible for food stamps, Medicaid and other programs for the poor — but the vast majority are not.
This winter, they will be back in Florida’s fields, growing tomatoes for America.
When you buy one, remember them.
Chicken: 900 Breasts Per Hour
There’s a reason that chicken is cheap. Her name is Rosa.
Five years ago, with her daughter wrapped in a shawl on her back, Rosa walked, rode and swam from Guatemala to the U.S. to escape war and poverty. She found work in an Iowa chicken factory that welcomed undocumented immigrants into its workforce.
In a loud room chilled to 47 degrees,10 she stood for up to 14 hours, five nights a week, cutting skin and bone from chicken breasts with a pair of scissors. Her boss wanted 15 breasts cleaned every minute, 900 per hour. If she went to the bathroom, the breasts piled up and her boss yelled at her. So she held her urine as water from the carcasses splashed on her apron and shoes, soaking them and chilling her.
On the chicken line, Rosa earned $6.25 per hour. The breasts she cleaned were sold in grocery stores, three per package, for about $3 a pound. For each $6.25 she earned, she trimmed and deboned $900 worth of chicken breasts — hour after hour.
Rosa’s labor, and that of 250,00011 other workers who toil in 174 major chicken factories, have helped make chicken America’s cheapest and most popular meat protein. At least half of these workers are Latino and more than half are women.12 Since 1950, chicken prices have risen only one third as much as the Consumer Price Index, and chicken now accounts for 40 percent of our meat consumption, up from 15 percent in 1950.13
Poultry processing is one of the most dangerous occupations in America, killing 100 workers and injuring 300,000 each year.
Nothing in her 33 years in rural Guatemala, where chicken was a rare Sunday treat, could have prepared Rosa for the work that she did in Iowa.
‘Racing with the machines’
A “modern” poultry plant is a violent machine that kills, eviscerates and cuts apart millions of chickens a day. Rosa and the tens of thousands of Latino men and women who work on the “disassembly line” are disposable cogs in this apparatus.
Hung on hooks and stuck on conveyor cones, chicken carcasses stream by at a rate of hundreds per minute as workers — standing shoulder-to-shoulder, bundled in sweaters and aprons, and armed with scissors and knives — make repeated cuts, up to 30,000 repetitions per shift.15
“I was dizzy from so many chickens that I saw pass by,” Rosa says. “No matter how fast you worked, that belt never slowed down. All day, it was full of chicken.”
Supervisors with stopwatches keep a close eye on the workers to monitor their productivity.
“Cutting wings, they would even check how many chickens we cut per minute, measuring us like machines,” said one Mexican woman who worked for Tyson Foods Inc. in Arkansas. “And you do it to not lose your job. You were racing with the machines.”
Working in a chicken factory is one of the most dangerous occupations in America. In the decade ending in 2008, 100 poultry workers died in the U.S., and 300,00016 were injured, many suffering the loss of a limb or debilitating repetitive motion injuries.17
Marta, 45, recalls the day her nephew lost a hand in a machine that grinds chicken feet: “When he was taking out a piece to clean the machine, a crew leader pushed a green button and turned it on. And his hand got ground up. I heard him screaming.”
Even in the absence of an obviously serious injury like the loss of a limb or a broken bone, the pain is constant. Many immigrants rely on over-the-counter pain relievers imported from Central America, which some call “vitamins.”
Orange Juice: 80 Cents for 90-Pound Bag
Stand in a grocery store and think of Florida. Chances are you’ll think of orange juice.
Decades of jingles have engrained in our culture the notion that Florida sunshine comes in half-gallons, gushing with goodness. “Throughout the ages,” the state reminds us, “the citrus fruit has been a symbol of eternal love, happiness, and even holiness.”18
Those are not the words we hear from Catalina, Veronica, Maria and others who help form the unseen army of 20,000 undocumented workers who pick Florida’s juicy Valencia oranges.19 They tell stories of living in poverty and being cheated out of wages, exposed to pesticides and subjected to rampant sexual harassment.
The disconnect between OJ’s image and reality is a shameful example of the hidden costs in our food, costs borne by the hands that feed us.
Christopher Columbus brought oranges to Florida in 1493, and they’ve been a major crop — America’s chief source of OJ — since before the Civil War. Today, the average picker works 1,500 hours each season, climbing wooden ladders into each of the state’s 60 million trees, dropping each orange, one-by-one, into a canvas sack slung over the shoulder. When full, the worker climbs down and dumps the bag into a large bin. It takes ten 90-pound bags to fill the bin, which is then picked up by a tractor.
A full bin pays $8 to $10, or about 80 cents for each 90-pound bag. A fast worker in a high-producing grove can fill eight to 10 bags an hour and earn, at best, $15,000 for the eight-month season.20 Drought and disease in orange groves have lowered these wages in recent years.
It takes 18 oranges21 to make a half gallon of juice, which brings $3.59 in grocery stores. The picker gets 3.5 cents, about 1 percent.22
Picking oranges has always attracted migrant labor. But over the past 25 years, orange growers — squeezed by Brazilian imports and supported by laissez faire government policies — have joined in a “race to the bottom”23 in which undocumented workers are routinely exploited, cheated and abused, says Greg Schell of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Florida. Labor rates have remained unchanged.
Countless Latino workers, weary and frightened after a harrowing passage across the U.S.-Mexico border, find their first work in Florida’s 400,000 acres of picturesque orange groves. Unable to speak or read English, isolated from family, and ignorant of wage and worker rules, they are America’s most vulnerable and fungible work force.
Here, for example, is an excerpt from an interview with Catalina, a 33-year-old Guatemalan:
Q: Do you know what minimum wage is?
A: No ... I don’t know how to read to check the amounts or dates.
Q: Why don’t you ask them?
A: When I’m a person with papers, or a man, maybe I can complain. But because I need to work, and I don’t have papers, I don’t have rights. I’m better off keeping quiet, even if they pay me $20 or $30.
1 “Agricultural Labor Shortages,” Migration News, November 1994 vol. 1, no. 10, http://migration.ucdavis.edu/mn/more.php?id=468_0_2_0.
2 “Regulating the Immigrant Labor Market,” Migration News, September 1995, vol. 2, no. 9, http://migration.ucdavis.edu/mn/more.php?id=736_0_2_0.
4 Frank Bardacke, “Cesar’s Ghost,” The Nation, http://www.thenation.com/article/cesars-ghost, January 21, 2006.
5 Anna Gorman, “California Steps Up Efforts to Prevent Heat-Related Deaths Among Farmworkers,” Los Angeles Times, August 3, 2009.
6 “Tomato 101” Fact sheet, Florida Tomato Committee, www.floridatomatoes.org/tomato%20101.pdf.
7 “Tomato 101” ibid; Interview with Greg Schell, Florida Legal Services Migrant Farmworker Justice Project.
8 Based on $1.50 per pound retail.
9 Ashok N. Shahane, “Summary of Agricultural Pesticide Use in Florida: 2003-2006,” Florida Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services, March 2008: www.flaes.org/pdf/PUI%20narrative%206-19-08%20final.pdf, 33-35 “Florida Tomatoes, Pesticides, Housing,” Rural Migration News vol. 9, no. 2, April 2003. http://www.migration.ucdavis.edu/rmn/more.php?id=13_0_3_0
10 “Southeast: Mexican Migrants on the Chicken Trail,” Rural Migration News, vol. 3, no. 1, Jan. 1997, http://migration.ucdavis.edu/rmn/more.php?id=162_0_2_0.
11 William G. Whittaker, “Labor Practices in the Meat Packing and Poultry Processing Industry: An Overview,” Congressional Research Service, July 20, 2005, www.nationalaglawcenter.org/assets/crs/RL33002.pdf, citing Industrial Safety & Hygiene News, July 2002, 14.
12 “Injury and Injustice — America’s Poultry Industry,” United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, www.ufcw.org/press_room/fact_sheets_and_backgrounder/poultryindustry_.cfm, accessed October 5, 2010.
13 Chicken CPI: http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/MannUsda/viewDocumentInfo.do?documentID=1367, Tables 065, 173; Historic CPI: Farm Animal Statistics: Meat Consumption: www.humanesociety.org/news/resources/research/stats_meat_consumption.html
14 “Southeast: Mexican Migrants on the Chicken Trail,” Rural Migration News, vol. 3, no. 1, Jan. 1997, http://migration.ucdavis.edu/rmn/more.php?id=162_0_2_0 ; also, Karen Davis, “The Need for Legislation and Elimination of Electrical Immobilization,” United Poultry Concerns, http://www.upc-online.org/slaughter/report.html.
15 “Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants,” Human Rights Watch, 2004, 36, citing “Son of a Chicken Man” Fortune, May 13, 2002, 136.
16 “The Perils of Processing,” The Charlotte Observer, June 25, 2010, www.charlotteobserver.com/2008/09/30/223426/the-perils-of-processing.html.
17 “Hazards and Disorders of Poultry Processing, U.S. Occupational and Safety Health Administration presentation,” www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/powerpoint/chicken/index.html.
18 “History of Citrus,” Florida Department of Citrus, www.floridajuice.com/history_of_citrus.php, accessed October 5, 2010.
19 “Florida: CIW, Oranges, Sugar,” Rural Migration News, April 2010, vol. 16, no. 2, http://migration.ucdavis.edu/rmn/more.php?id=1526_0_3_0, accessed October 5, 2010. Interview Greg Schell, Migrant Farmworker Justice Project.
20 Interview Greg Schell, Migrant Farmworkers Justice Project.
21 “FAQ: Products,” Tropicana Products, Inc., http://cr.tropicana.com/crforms/documents/tropicanafaq.pdf, accessed October 5, 2010.
22 Jane Daugherty, “That Glass of OJ is Squeezing Back,” Palm Beach Post, December 9, 2003.
23 Interview with Greg Schell, Migrant Farmworker Justice Project.