Area farm workers battle labor injustices

April 1, 2010

By Lucia Veronica Carmona and Julie Steinkopf Rice

Early each morning around 2 a.m. in El Paso, neurologist agricultural workers board buses destined for fields around Las Cruces. They wait for dawn to begin work, this and will then work until evening with just one midday break. For chile pickers, the fieldwork rate of 50 cents a bucket for long green chiles or 45 cents for dried New Mexico reds means a hard worker rarely claims more than $20 a day. These workers are the backbone of a chile industry in New Mexico that generates more than $300 million a year.

In addition to picking chile, agricultural workers in the borderlands also pick onions, lettuce and potatoes.  The Border Agricultural Workers Project, a non-profit organization in El Paso, estimates about 12,000 agricultural workers live or work in the Southern New Mexico – West Texas – Chihuahua border region.

Approximately one-third of farm workers are women and, as women, they routinely experience sexual harassment at the fields, mostly by the contractors. Angelica Aguirre, who is 57, has worked in the fields for 25 years. She explains, “We suffer many abuses, not only low wages but also harassment and verbal abuse, only because we are women and don’t have a husband to protect us.” The women often suffer kidney illnesses because of the lack of appropriate restrooms in the fields and of clean drinking water. Many women work in the fields when they are pregnant, and others carry their children with them due to lack of child care. In some families, children as young as 10 must work in the fields in order to contribute to the family income.

In addition to the low wages and difficult working conditions, the health of all farmworkers is compromised by their work. The lack of hand-washing facilities contributes to the spread of disease and the retention of pesticides on workers’ skin. According to Don Antonio Gonzales, ex-bracero and a co-founder of the Border Agricultural Workers Project, “We have chronic illnesses such as heart problems and arthritis. These are illnesses we have as a direct result of working in the fields for a prolonged period of time.” Four out of five farm workers do not have employer-provided health insurance, and all farm workers are excluded from state workers compensation coverage.

Farm workers are also likely to receive fewer retirement benefits than they should because their employers often do not report all their earnings to the Social Security Administration.

While area farm workers confront these abuses on a daily basis, they find support and safe haven at the Centro de los Trabajadores Agrícolas Fronterizos, or the “Centro,” located in El Paso. This building was completed in 1994 after a prolonged fight for labor rights, and it is the home of the non-profit organization, Border Agricultural Workers Project.

For many farm workers the Centro becomes their temporary home. It provides a safe place where they can eat, take a shower and sleep. Adelita Cuevas, the Centro’s cook and a former farm worker, enjoys feeding her co-workers and making them feel as if they were at home.  “I am proud to support my compañeros [co-workers] with a nice supper after their hard work at the fields. I know how they feel, and the only thing that we want after coming back from there is hot delicious soup with a Mexican taste. This is my duty.”

The farm workers themselves help to maintain the Centro, keeping it clean and safe. The workers organize themselves into committees and rotate tasks including cleaning the showers and floors, maintaining the outside of the Centro, and ensuring the facility remains free of alcohol and drugs.

Alicia Marentes, a co-founder of the Border Agricultural Workers Project, explains that the organization, which was founded in 1983 and located at the Centro, supports farm workers in a myriad of ways. “We feed the workers and give them a place to sleep during the growing season; we advocate for their rights; and we also help them with issues such as tax advice.”

Recently, the Border Agricultural Workers Project filed a lawsuit against the state of New Mexico and the New Mexico Workers Compensation Administration, challenging the law that excludes farm and ranch laborers from workers’ compensation coverage. The New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act requires that employers provide their workers medical care for injuries sustained on the job, lost wages for days that the worker cannot work due to injury and death benefits for families of workers killed on the job. However, in New Mexico, the agricultural industry is exempt from this requirement. Labor rights activist Dolores Huerta at a recent press conference commented on this exemption: “Farm workers work in grueling conditions to provide us with the food we eat every day, and it is an injustice that they are treated so unfairly. We value hard work in this country. So why don’t we value the hard work of our farm and ranch workers?”

The Border Agricultural Workers Project members say they are also concerned that ongoing efforts focused upon supporting the agricultural industry in the state of New Mexico continue to neglect any consideration of the needs of farm workers. Rather, the focus is on issues such as the high cost of labor and the lack of workers. They cited Dino Cervantes, association treasurer and general manager of chile processor Cervantes Enterprises, Inc. who said, “Farmers are having a difficult time financially penciling in the ability to grow chile peppers, mainly due to the high cost of labor and labor inputs, and lack of workers.”

There is a disconnect between what the industry is saying and what the Centro has seen for the last three years where farm workers have had trouble finding work.  During seasonal time one can see entire busloads of workers going back to the Centro after failing to find a job for the day. These arguments also typically do not mention that farming costs are increasing due to crop mechanization by corporations, which displace farm workers.

Olga Alvara, program manager for DVR/CHICA (The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, a program that helps migrant and seasonal farm workers with disabilities and their family members in New Mexico), refutes farm and ranch owners’ arguments. She states that farm workers continue to be seriously underpaid and that the “lack of workers” argument is often used to approve H2 visas to bring foreign temporary workers from other countries. She also contends that the Agricultural Research and Cooperative Extension Services at New Mexico State University addresses the needs of the chile industry while doing little to address the needs of the farm workers.

For more information the Centro please contact:

Carlos Marentes, Farmworker Center of El Paso, Texas

Border Agricultural Workers Project
201 E. Ninth Avenue
El Paso, Texas 79901
Tel. (915) 532-0921

Lucia Veronica Carmona has volunteered for the last five years at the Centro, assisting with efforts to advocate for and support area farm workers. She is also the lead community organizer at the Colonias Development Council, working with colonia residents to improve quality of life at their communities.

Julie Steinkopf Rice is an assistant professor of Sociology at New Mexico State University.

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