Wednesday, July 11, 2018

FARM WORK CAN BE A SKILLED AND PERMANENT JOB

FARM WORK CAN BE A SKILLED AND PERMANENT JOB
By David Bacon
The American Prospect, July 11, 2018
http://prospect.org/article/farm-work-can-be-skilled-and-permanent-job

A Salinas grower and the union bet that a new contract will become an alternative to employing guest workers


D'Arrigo workers march in Salinas to protest immigration raids in farm worker communities.


Up and down the Pacific coast, many of the largest growers are rapidly increasing their use of guest workers recruited in Mexico as temporary harvest labor. Farm labor, in their view, is unskilled. The workers who perform it should show up at harvest time, work as hard as possible, and then effectively disappear until the next season.

This has been the common view for over a century. It is the justification for a renewed Republican push to establish a vastly expanded guest worker program. But is the road to improving the lives of farmworkers to legislate even more massive contract-labor programs? Or is it to treat farm labor as skilled and permanent work, and provide security and decent wages to those who do it?

One Salinas grower, D'Arrigo Brothers Company, is choosing the second alternative, a choice its workers feel reflects the value of their labor. "I started working at D'Arrigo in 1979," says Efrain Fraide, who works in a company broccoli crew. "I've cut and packed every crop they have-celery, cauliflower, asparagus, broccoli, lettuce-here in Salinas and in the Imperial Valley, too. The company was poor when I went in, and now they're one of the biggest."

"We're ready to invest in our workers," says John D'Arrigo. "It's hard to find workers today, and our answer is to make the jobs attractive, and to retain the workers we have. We need a long-term workforce, and we want direct hires-people who work directly for the company."

That understanding led to a labor agreement signed in a televised ceremony in Salinas on June 29 by D'Arrigo Brothers Company and the United Farm Workers (UFW). The contract covers 1,200 D'Arrigo employees in the Salinas Valley, most of whom work about nine months of the year, and another 300 in the Imperial Valley, who work a three-month harvest.

Wages in the new contract start at $13.35 per hour-$2.35 above California's minimum wage of $11. They rise to $13.85 in the second year, and $14.40 in the third year, when the state minimum rises to $13. Many D'Arrigo workers, however, work on a piece rate (called a production incentive), which increases by 3 percent in the first year, 3 percent in the second, and 2.5 percent in the third over the three-year duration of the contract. The company has a bonus system, giving workers an additional percentage of their pay at the end of the year, and the required number of hours has been reduced so that Imperial Valley workers will receive it for the first time.

"The most important thing to me," says Odilia Aldana, a lettuce worker on the union negotiating committee, "is that the company is now going to pay for our medical plan, plus six holidays every year." The UFW administers the Robert F. Kennedy medical insurance program, and D'Arrigo has agreed to pay the whole $612 monthly premium providing medical, vision, and dental coverage for workers' families.

Workers pay deductibles for treatment, including $15 for a visit to the doctor or for prescriptions. The plan pays 90 percent of major medical bills, and the union has negotiated lower rates with local hospitals.

"For the last three years, I've cut lettuce in a crew where we're all women, except for the men who load the boxes on the truck," Aldana says. Cutting lettuce used to be a job reserved for men, who in past decades earned some of the highest wages in agriculture for backbreaking work.

Since then, the work system has changed and the pay is not what it was. Nevertheless, a few years ago the company told its women employees that it couldn't find enough men to cut all its lettuce, and asked them to take cutting jobs. "When there's a lot of lettuce in the field, we can work piece-rate and make good money," Aldana explains. "But we really earn it, and go home very tired. And if the field isn't so good, we have the hourly guarantee to fall back on."

Inside the company, the union has a workers' committee with five members, and is trying to encourage the participation of more women. Each crew has a union steward, and when workers have grievances or problems they try to resolve them directly with the supervisor.



According to UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, D'Arrigo Brothers has always relied on workers employed directly by the company. "That's good for the workers," he says. "It's more stable. The workers get educated and become more skilled, which is better for the company. And as a union, we develop a better relationship with the company because of that stability."

D'Arrigo Brothers is one of the Salinas Valley's oldest companies. Two Sicilian immigrants, Andrea and Stefano D'Arrigo, started distributing produce in Boston in 1923. After moving to California soon after, they developed the refrigerated railroad cars that allowed the state's vegetables and fruits to reach markets across the country, and the first brand-marketed produce label-Andy Boy. John D'Arrigo, the current president, belongs to the family's third generation.

The brothers were not always friends of the union, however, and the new contract represents a change in an often-contentious relationship going back half a century. The nascent United Farm Workers Organizing Committee signed a first agreement with D'Arrigo Brothers during the great Salinas lettuce battles of 1970, but it only lasted two years, and was followed by a strike. When California passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, the company's workers voted for the union the year afterward, but were unable to get the company to sign a union agreement.

Nevertheless, a core of union supporters have worked for the company through the decades, and over the years organized job actions to try to win better wages and conditions. In 2002, California passed a law allowing the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to impose a mediated contract settlement on an employer when the union has been certified to represent its workers. Because of the 1976 election, the law applied to D'Arrigo, and the company and UFW finally signed a contract three years ago. It is one of the largest growers to sign a union agreement as a result of the mandatory mediation law.

Both Rodriguez and D'Arrigo agree, however, that the new agreement has changed their relationship. When talks between the union and company negotiators stalled during the current bargaining, which lasted from December to June, Rodriguez and D'Arrigo met at a restaurant, and later talked by phone. "John said it made more sense to spend money on wages and benefits than on lawyers to fight with the union," the UFW president recalls. "We got far more than we've ever gotten before."

"I told my team that what happened in the past is over," D'Arrigo explained in an interview. "After we signed the agreement, I had an hour-long meeting with them and the union's negotiating team together. I told them that the company survives because of them, and that we have to develop a new way to work. We have a shrinking, aging workforce. We have to take care of who we have, and make our jobs attractive to the people who live here."



Like other Salinas growers, D'Arrigo does use labor contractors, and employs H-2A workers. Under the H-2A visa program, agricultural employers can recruit workers in other countries, under contracts of less than a year. Afterward, the workers must return home. Program regulations require growers to hire local workers first. If H-2A workers are fired for not meeting production standards or organizing, they must leave the country immediately.

"I don't have enough direct hires [directly hired permanent employees] to harvest all our crops, so I need additional workers," D'Arrigo says. "The contractor and H-2A crews are all very good workers, but they're really just a partial solution, a Band-Aid, not a real solution. Both Artie [Rodriguez] and I agree the goal is developing long-term, skilled people."

According to UFW Vice President Armando Elenes, about 200 workers for D'Arrigo are employed by labor contractors, and under the new agreement they will all belong to the union and get the wages and benefits the contract provides. An additional group of fewer than 200 H-2A workers are represented by the union and get the union contract wages. Those wages are above the level required under the Department of Labor regulations, which set the minimum H-2A wage in California this year at $13.18 per hour.

Since all the workers are receiving the same wages, there's no economic incentive to replace permanent workers with H-2A workers or a contracted labor force. That is an important issue for workers in Salinas. Two large local growers, Tanimura and Antle, and Nunes Company, have built barracks with hundreds of beds for H-2A workers. Last year, California-based H-2A recruiter Fresh Harvest brought 4,623 H-2A workers to the United States, and Elkhorn Packing (which provides workers to D'0Arrigo) brought in 2,653.

"We're all very worried about this," says longtime D'Arrigo worker Fraide. "We can see other companies laying off direct hires, and hiring H-2A workers. At D'Arrigo, because of the contract, at least we're protected for the next three years. Basically, we got what we wanted, and I'm happy. Now there's respect at work, where they used to darnos carrilla [give us a bad time]."

John D'Arrigo is a board member of the Western Growers Association, where other growers will likely question his wisdom in signing a UFW contract. "One guy already told me I'm going to cost him money," he laughs. "But we're all fighting for the same workers. We understand competition, and I'm a strong competitor. If this causes ripples, so be it. But I believe the answer to our labor shortage is investing in the workers."

He cites the contribution the company made to Natividad Hospital, which launched the D'Arrigo Family Specialty Services clinic. Natividad has hired trilingual interpreters in Spanish, English, and the indigenous Mexican languages spoken by many valley farmworkers, including Mixteco and Triqui. D'Arrigo promotes the Agricultural Leadership Council, which has 160 members and donated $2.7 million to buy equipment for the hospital.

Nevertheless, a union contract does represent increased costs. D'Arrigo says he plans to offset them by increasing the number of boxes of produce harvested per acre, and maintaining a high level of quality. The company uses increased technology, like GPS devices on tractors, and systems for using fertilizer spray to thin young plants instead of manual labor. These jobs require more highly trained workers, and keeping turnover in the workforce to a minimum.

Technology can also threaten jobs, however. "Technology is going to happen, we know that," Rodriguez says. "We remember the tomato machine and can see the industry has changed a lot and will continue to change. But we want workers to have the opportunity to change with it, to get the jobs that are created."



With a new contract, D'Arrigo Brothers is providing a set of answers to growers trying to find workers and fill harvest crews. It's an answer that differs substantially from the program laid out by Republicans in Congress.

For the last two years Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has proposed legislation that could result in issuing two million new "H-2C" guest-worker visas within two years. His proposal would lock in farm labor wages near the minimum-wage level, and withhold 10 percent of guest workers' pay until they return to their country of origin. Growers would no longer have to provide them with housing or transportation, and would only have to promise to recruit local workers first. Legal aid organizations could no longer represent guest workers, who would be unable to go to court if they were cheated.

While growers' use of the H-2A program has increased sharply to more than 200,000 workers per year, immigration raids in rural areas of California have increased as well, especially following the election of President Trump. Goodlatte's proposed anti-immigrant legislation would deny legal status to the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the United States, including half of all farmworkers. Instead, it would require their employers to identify and fire them, while prohibiting guest workers from bringing their families to the United States.

"If people disappear, that would be catastrophic for us," D'Arrigo charges. "We need to wise up. We have to get people into legal status. They're already harvesting our food. And when we look at what's happening on the border, we can see there are people who want to come here. We should let them come and treat them with dignity, so they can set up life here. We certainly don't want to separate them from their families. We can't say, 'Come work for me', but your kids are starving and in danger."

Sunday, July 8, 2018

MARRIOTT WORKERS: "ONE JOB SHOULD BE ENOUGH!"

MARRIOTT WORKERS: "ONE JOB SHOULD BE ENOUGH!"
Photographs by David Bacon

On June 27 thousands of union and non-union Marriott workers organized demonstrations in San Francisco, Oakland, Honolulu, Boston, San Diego, Seattle, Philadelphia and San Jose.  Workers carried signs saying, "One Job Should Be Enough!" About 20,000 Marriott workers are represented by Unite Here. As contract negotiations get underway, some 12,000 of those employees have contracts expiring later this year. 

Marriott is the largest and richest hotel company on the planet, earning $22.9 billion in 2017.  Profits have gone up 279% since the recession, while hotel workers' annual income only increased 7%. 

According to D. Taylor, International President of UNITE HERE, "Too often workers welcome guests to Marriott hotels and deliver an unforgettable experience to them, just to leave their shift and go to a second job because working full time for Marriott isn't enough to make ends meet."

Marriott became the biggest global hotel chain when it acquired Starwood for $13.6 billion in 2016. The company's 30 brands include Ritz-Carlton, Westin and Sheraton, accounting for more than 1.2 million rooms in over 6500 hotels in 127 countries and territories. It opens a new hotel every 18 hours.

Technology is transforming hotel work, with self-check-in kiosks, robot room-service delivery, and mechanical bartenders.  In negotiations, workers want guarantees that jobs will not only pay enouogh to live on, but will last during this period of change. 

Meanwhile, hotel work is not just underpaid, but is dangerous.  In Chicago the union found roughly half of hotel housekeepers had been the victims of sexual misconduct from guests.  One man assaulted housekeepers in DC eight times over eight years.  A Florida Marriott worker was assaulted in a hotel bathroom.  In San Francisco a man committed suicide after attacking and critically injuring a housekeeper.

In negotiations Unite Here is not only demanding increases in wages and benefits, but greater protections, including panic buttons.  This year the Chicago union won them for workers with a campaign, Hands Off, Pants On.

These are a few of the many photographs taken of Marriott workers in San Francisco and Honolulu as part of the campaign at Marriott, One Job Should Be Enough.






















Monday, July 2, 2018

THE ZOMBIE GUEST WORKER BILL

THE ZOMBIE GUEST WORKER BILL
Republican immigration reform proposals may be dead, but Republican guest worker proposals live on...
By David Bacon
Capital and Main, 7/2/18
https://capitalandmain.com/the-zombie-guest-worker-bill-0702



On Wednesday, June 27, the Republican effort to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill went down in flames for the second time in a month, due to divisions within their own party. The Republican effort to create a vast new guest worker program, however, has not ended.

That effort has been headed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and is supported by many growers around the country, particularly on the west coast. Originally Goodlatte introduced a stand-alone bill in 2017, the Agricultural Guestworker Act. Although that bill didn't get a vote in Congress, its main provisions were folded into a much larger, comprehensive bill Goodlatte tried to pass this spring, the Securing America's Future Act. That bill failed by a vote of 193 to 231. Goodlatte then incorporated his guestworker provisions into the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act (H.R. 6136). That fared even worse, 121 to 301.

Nevertheless, House Speaker Paul Ryan made a promise to Congressman Dan Newhouse (R-WA) , a cosponsor of H.R. 6136, that he would hold a vote on agricultural worker issues before Congress adjourns at the end of July. After noting his minority votes for the two comprehensive immigration bills, and criticizing fellow Republicans for torpedoing them, Newhouse said in a statement, "the House has yet to address the crisis facing agriculture producers who cannot find enough workers, and I will not stop advocating for improvements to create a reliable legal guest-worker system. If our nation's farmers are to continue providing food for America and the world, it is incumbent on Congress to act to address labor needs. I thank the Speaker for committing to hold a vote on this matter in July."

Goodlatte's guestworker bill has not yet been reintroduced, but when it is, the  contents will undoubtedly be the same as in previous iterations. The latest guestworker provisions, in the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act, are a window into what's to come. Those provisions would create a massive new guestworker program, based on a new visa category called H-2C. This would take the place of the current H-2A visas, whose numbers have increased from 44,619 workers in U.S. fields in 2004 to 200,049 last year - a growth of over 450 percent in a little over a decade.

Critics of H-2A visas have two chief complaints: first, that workers in the program are exploited and often cheated, and second, that resident farm workers are displaced by growers who see H-2A workers as easier to control, and potentially less expensive. The proposed H-2C program would put the H-2A program on steroids, according to Bruce Goldstein, director of the Washington DC-based farm worker advocacy group, Farmworker Justice.

"Over the last year," Goldstein charges, "Rep. Goodlatte has made it his mission to create a massive new guestworker program of millions of captive workers who have even fewer labor rights than the current workers they would replace. His new guestworker program would convert an entire industry, from the farms and ranches to the packing houses and processing plants, from lettuce and grapes to dairy cows and poultry, into a labor force of exploitable temporary guest workers with virtually no workplace protections and with no opportunity to join the communities they are helping to feed."

Goodlatte's H-2C provisions might result in 2 million visas issued in the first two years, Farmworker Justice predicts, supplying contract labor to meatpacking and food processing in addition to agriculture. Growers would be able to employ workers year round, and continuously from one year to the next. Current H-2A workers have to return to their home countries within a year, and can come back the following year if they receive a new contract. In either program, workers have the same vulnerability. If they fail to meet grower production demands, if they complain or organize, or if they simply get on the wrong side of a foreman, they can be fired, and must leave the country immediately.

Today each state has to calculate a wage rate for H-2A workers that, in theory, doesn't undermine local farm worker wages. H-2C worker wages, however, would be set at 115% of the federal $7.50/hour minimum wage, or applicable state or local minimums. This locks in farm labor wages at the minimum wage level, since local farm workers that demand more could be replaced with contract workers. Workers' fear of replacement by H-2A labor is already affecting strawberry wages in Santa Maria, for instance.

Further, 10% of each H-2C worker's wages would be withheld and could only be claimed by going to a U.S. embassy or consulate after returning to their country of origin. This was a feature of the old bracero program, which brought hundreds of thousands of guest workers to the U.S. from 1942 to 1965. Millions of dollars in withheld wages went missing, and those braceros still living are still trying to recover them.

Today growers who want to recruit H-2A workers have to be certified by the Department of Labor and local unemployment offices, and show that they first tried to hire workers locally. In reality, this provision is not strongly enforced.  Legal aid offices around the country have brought many cases on behalf of local workers who were either replaced or not hired to begin with. But the H-2C program would eliminate certification entirely. Growers could simply promise that they'd made a local hiring effort, and that they would obey labor laws. 

The legal aid organizations that today file cases on behalf of guest workers would be barred from doing so. H-2C workers wouldn't even be able to go to court against a grower, and would have to agree to private mandatory arbitration, a system that favors employers.

"These temporary workers have no other access to attorneys," says Cynthia Rice, litigation director for California Rural Legal Assistance, which currently provides legal services to H-2A workers.  "They are left intentionally unaware of the state and federal enforcement agencies who could take their complaints; and those agencies are severely understaffed.  Prohibiting legal services from representing them will leave them unprotected and without anyone to recover the wages stolen from them.  It will eliminate any real threat that unscrupulous employers will be held accountable, and will create an incentive to replace local workers, who have access to legal representation, with contract workers who do not."

Growers would no longer be required to provide housing to guest workers, or provide transportation to the job location or back home when the work is done. Today, in many parts of the country, farm workers sleep in cars or under trees because of the lack of rural housing for migrants, and rents run high for what housing is available. H-2C workers arriving from another country would simply be thrown onto this already-inadequate and expensive housing market. Growers, meanwhile, would have no responsibility.

Goodlatte's bills have all contained heightened enforcement provisions, especially a requirement that employers use the government's E-Verify database to identify and fire workers without papers. In his H-2C program, Goodlatte would require undocumented workers to return to their home countries, and then apply to come back to their homes in the U.S. with H-2C visas. They would have to leave their families behind, however, since his bills specifically prohibit issuing visas for family members.

According to Farmworker Justice, "Rep. Goodlatte's H-2C program would harm the hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers employed in agriculture, fails to take steps to stabilize our nation's experienced agricultural workforce, and instead creates a labor system that treats workers as commodities, with a revolving door of temporary exploitable workers."

Many Republicans rejected their own party's comprehensive bills because they oppose any legal status for Dreamers (young people granted temporary status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) and want a bill that simplyerects a border wall and increases enforcement. They might, however, be willing to give agribusiness a new guestworker program because it favors employers and denies workers a permanent legal status. During the June debates other Republicans, like Jeff Denham (R-CA) stated their public support for the Dreamers. But Denham, Devin Nunes, Kevin McCarthy and David Valadao are all San Joaquin Valley Republicans, and are either growers themselves, or come from communities where growers are politically very strong. Depending on a fractured Republican Party, therefore, would not be a sure way to avoid new guest worker programs.

At the same time, some conservative Democrats have historically voiced concern over agribusiness complaints of "labor shortages." and support for guest worker programs. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, in particular, has a long record of support. In a 2009 speech, after introducing a guest worker bill, she said, "There is a farm emergency in this country, and most of it is caused by the absence of farm labor." In 2013 she introduced a bill to help legalize undocumented farm workers, but which also proposed 336,000 guest worker visas.

While Republicans debated their comprehensive bills in June, progressive Democrats introduced a measure that provides a political alternative, the Fairness for Farm Workers Act. The proposal, authored by Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to remove the discriminatory denial of overtime pay to agricultural workers, as well as end their exclusion from many minimum wage laws.

The bill would enact on a Federal level the overtime provisions for farm workers that the California legislature passed this year, and has attracted many Democratic cosponsors. While it stands no chance in the current Republican Congress, it may serve as a vehicle for pro-worker Democrats to call the question on their own colleagues: Is the road to improving the lives of farm workers the expansion of guest worker programs? Or is it providing the existing workforce the same benefits enjoyed by most other workers, but denied to agricultural laborers by Congress eighty years ago?

Thursday, June 28, 2018

A TRIBUTE TO CABBAGE AND ITS HARVESTERS

A TRIBUTE TO CABBAGE AND ITS HARVESTERS
Photoessay by David Bacon
Civil Eats, 6/28/18
https://civileats.com/2018/06/28/photo-essay-the-humble-cabbage-connects-history-and-cultures/


Next to a highway outside of Oxnard, California, I saw workers in a field near the ocean, cutting, packing, and loading cabbage. Their style of harvesting reminded me of the old lettuce crews of the 1960s and 70s, who worked in groups of three called trios - two men cutting and one man packing. This crew didn't have that trio formation, but they clearly worked at a speed they set for themselves, just as the lechugueros once did. That's not so common anymore. Most vegetable harvesters now work behind or in front of a big packing machine pulled through the field by a tractor. The machine sets the pace of the work. Not so here.

The crew moved down the field in a kind of collective rhythm. First came the cutters. Each reached for a cabbage head with one hand, and with the knife in the other, cleanly sliced the stem holding it to the soil. After trimming off dead or wilted leaves, the cutter placed each head next to the edge of the row for the packers who followed behind. Each of the packer's hands grabbed a cabbage and, holding the pair against each other, turned them and slid them into place in the box. And because a box has to be there, ready and waiting, other workers grabbed them from the truck, unfolded them, and tossed them into place as they ran ahead.

This crew, working for Pablo's Produce, was packing cabbage into plastic crates. A single man followed far behind the packers, stretching plastic film over the harvested heads. Finally came the loaders. On each side of a flatbed truck a worker lifted a full, heavy crate of a dozen or more heads to his chest. Hoisting it to shoulder height, he handed the box off to his partner high above, who lifted and tossed it into place in the growing stack, before turning for the next one.

Growing up, I used to think of cabbage as food from Irish and German tenements. Talking about the smell of boiled cabbage was a way people many times described the smell of poverty. Later, Salvadoran foundry strikers in San Francisco's Mission District introduced me to curtido, the combination of cabbage, carrots, and onions heaped on pupusas. Whether from Europe or the Americas, the idea that cabbage is the food of the poor and of immigrants is ingrained. According to the "Bourgeois of Paris," the anonymous journals of a 15th-century resident of Paris, in 1420 "the poor people ate no bread, nothing but cabbages and turnips and such dishes, without any bread or salt."

Cabbage cultivation began 3,000 years ago, by the Celts of Central and Western Europe. In Istanbul, Sultan Selim III wrote an ode to the cabbage at the height of the Ottoman empire in the late 1700s. The tight-leafed vegetable traveled across the Atlantic with artichokes and Brussels sprouts, and soon was grown and eaten by the original inhabitants here as well. Some communities claim to have discovered that, like menudo, eating cabbage even cures hangovers.

Whether or not they were thinking much about that history on that day in Oxnard, the men in the field (and it was only men) were very serious. Often, when I go into a field to take photographs, workers joke around. I do, too. Here they joked a little, too, but they didn't stop to do it, intent on keeping up their fast pace down the field.

I didn't ask how they were being paid, but my bet would be the piece rate, giving them a reason to work quickly. Even their jokes were about how fast they were, how they had what it takes to work bent over double, hours at a time, day after day, year in and year out. The loaders, doing the heaviest job in the field, really had that machismo. One, seeing me with the camera, struck a bodybuilding pose you might see in the gym.

However we eat it, and for whatever reason - kimchee, coleslaw, stuffed cabbage, or the strange British dish of bubble and squeak - all come out of this field and others like it. It can seem a far distance from the hands of the packer, or the exhaled grunt of the loader, to the pale, gelatinous leaves on the dinner plate. But we are connected - from the labor of these workers to our own appetite and hunger.




Jose throws boxes into the row, working ahead of the packers.


Refugio Lopez cuts cabbages.




Trimming the leaves after the head is cut.


The foreman watches as Avram cuts cabbages.


Loaders lift 45 pound boxes of cabbages up onto the bed of a truck in the field.


One loader jokes about how strong you have to be to do this work.


A worker packs cabbage heads into a box, holding two at a time.


A worker puts boxes together and throws them into the row.


Workers packing cabbage heads coordinate with each other to work quickly.


A worker puts plastic over the boxes of cut cabbage.



Tuesday, June 19, 2018

HAWAI’I - PUNA’S PEOPLE BEFORE THE ERUPTION

HAWAI’I - PUNA’S PEOPLE BEFORE THE ERUPTION
Photoessay by David Bacon

A couple of months before the eruption of the Kilauea volcano it was raining in Puna.  At the Saturday farmers’ market children pulled at their parents’ hands, asking for papayas or bananas, still wet from the downpour. In the bustle among the stalls, who was thinking of what was to come?

Within a few weeks we were mesmerized by images of fountains of glowing lava.  Video shot by drones showed rivers of molten rock heading implacably toward the ocean.  They've both provided us a visual language for understanding the destruction and awful price of the eruption.  So many homes burned out and now under the lava flow.  Hundreds of people displaced.

The people of Puna lived in a beautiful part of the Big Island, a district of many small farms.  People grow papayas and mangos.  Some produce in the stalls, like the taro, have local origins, while others, like Hawai’i’s giant avocados, came originally from the mainland. Orchids are sold in the stalls too, yet seem omnipresent throughout Puna's subtropical landscape.  

The people here are very diverse.  Many are poor - this is one of the least expensive places to live on the islands.  Native Hawai’ians live beside African-Americans, immigrants from Asian countries across the Pacific, and white retirees from the mainland.

In the Maku'u farmers’ market every Saturday you can see them all.  It’s not far from Pahoa and the edge of the eruption, just a few miles up highway 130.  The market must be having some hard times now, though.  Some of the farms have been overtaken by the lava.  Who knows whether displaced people can afford to buy fruit at the stalls of those farmers still able to come and sell what they’re growing?

These images were taken a few months before the eruption started.  They’re just a way of looking at who lives in Puna, a community living on the side of a volcano.








 









Tuesday, June 12, 2018

"YOU CAME HERE TO SUFFER"

"YOU CAME HERE TO SUFFER"
The H-2A Farm Worker Program creates a pipeline of cheap, disposable labor.
By David Bacon
The Progressive, June 1, 2018
http://progressive.org/magazine/you-came-here-to-suffer/


ROYAL CITY, WA - H2A guest workers string up wire supports for planting apple trees, in an field owned by Stemilt Growers.  Carlos Gutierrez and Eduardo Lopez are immigrant contract workers recruited in Mexico.  They will work a few months, and then will have to return to Mexico.


On August 6 of last year, Honesto Silva Ibarra died in a Seattle hospital. Silva was a guest worker-a Mexican farm worker brought to the United States under contract to pick blueberries. He worked first in Delano, California, and then in Sumas, Washington, next to the Canadian border. His death, and the political and legal firestorm it ignited, has unveiled a contract labor scheme reminiscent of the United States' infamously exploitative mid-century Bracero Program.

In a suit filed January in the U.S. District Court in Washington State, the state's rural legal aid group, Columbia Legal Services charges that Silva's employer, Sarbanand Farms, "violated federal anti-trafficking laws through a pattern of threats and intimidation that caused its H-2A workforce to believe they would suffer serious harm unless they fully submitted to Sarbanand's labor demands."

Those demands, as described in the complaint, were extreme, and Silva's coworkers believe he died as a result.

Sarbanand Farms belongs to Munger Brothers, a family corporation in Delano, California. Since 2006, the company has annually brought more than 600 workers from Mexico under the H-2A visa program to harvest 3,000 acres of blueberries in California and Washington. Munger, the largest blueberry grower in North America, is the driving force behind the growers' cooperative that markets under the Naturipe label.

Companies using the H-2A program must apply to the U.S. Department of Labor, listing the work and living conditions and the wages workers will receive. The company must provide transportation, housing, and food. Workers are given contracts for less than one year, and must leave the country when their work is done. They can only work for the company that contracts them, and if they lose that job they must leave immediately.

According to the lawsuit complaint, workers were told that they had to pick two boxes of blueberries an hour or they'd be sent back to Mexico. In July and August, they were working twelve-hour shifts. The complaint says managers routinely threatened to send them home if they failed to meet the quota, and to blacklist them afterwards, preventing them from returning to the U.S. to work in subsequent years. One manager told them, "You came here to suffer, not for vacation."



ROYAL CITY, WA- A sign on the gate restricting access to the barracks in central Washington housing contract workers brought to the U.S. by growers under the H2A visa program by the Green Acres company.


Laboring in the rows under the hot sun, breathing smoke in the air from wildfires, many workers complained of dizziness and headaches. Nidia Perez, a Munger supervisor, purportedly told workers that "unless they were on their death bed," they could not miss work. Silva told a supervisor he was sick. The company, in a statement, said he had diabetes and "received the best medical care and attention possible as soon as his distress came to our attention." But fellow worker Miguel Angel Ramirez Salazar, gave a different account: "They said if he didn't keep working he'd be fired for 'abandoning work,' but after a while he couldn't work at all."

Silva collapsed, was taken to a local clinic, and then to the hospital where he died. CSI Visa Processing, the firm that recruited the workers in Mexico for Munger, later posted a statement on its website, saying "the compaƱero who is hospitalized, the cause was meningitis, an illness he suffered from before, and is not related to his work." Nidia Perez was the liaison between Munger Farms and CSI.

While Silva was in the hospital, sixty of his coworkers decided to protest. On August 4, they stayed in the labor camp instead of leaving for work. In addition to the production quota, they were angry about the food. The complaint says they were being charged $12.07 a day for meals, but the food sometimes ran out. When workers were fed, a supervisor marked their hands with "X" so they couldn't go back for more. They were forbidden to eat in the fields.

As the protestors sat in the camp, one worker called the Department of Labor, which sent out an inspector. The next day, when they tried to go back to work, company supervisors called out strikers by name and fired them for "insubordination." Perez told them they had an hour to get out of the labor camp before the police and immigration authorities would be called. Supervisors stood in front of the barracks, periodically calling out how much time was left.

Workers set up an impromptu encampment nearby with the help of Washington State's new farm worker union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. After a few days, all eventually had to return to Mexico.



YAKIMA, WA- Members of the Yakima Nation of Native Americans join farm workers and other immigrants and community and labor activists marching through Yakima to celebrate May Day.


The death and firings at Sarbanand Farms highlight the explosive growth of this contract labor program. In 2006, U.S. employers were certified to recruit 59,112 workers under H-2A visas. Washington State certified only 814 H-2A positions that year. But by 2015, the numbers had mushroomed. Nationally, employers were certified to bring in 139,832 workers, including 12,081 in Washington State alone. Last year, Washington accounted for 18,535 workers out of 200,049 nationally.

Driving this growth are some very big operators. CSI (Consular Solutions Inc.), the recruiter for Munger Farms, is probably the largest single recruiter of H-2A workers from Mexico. The company, originally called Manpower of the Americas, was created to bring workers from Mexico for what is today the largest H-2A employer-the North Carolina Growers Association. The group was founded in 1989 by Stan Eury, who formerly worked for North Carolina's unemployment office, which plays a role in H-2A certification. Eury also created the North Carolina Growers Association PAC, a political action committee that donates almost exclusively to Republicans.

Under pressure from Eury, courts have concluded that anti-discrimination laws don't apply to H-2A workers. Employers are allowed to recruit men almost entirely. In 2001, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act does not cover workers recruited in other countries, leaving employers free to give preference to young workers able to meet high production quotas. In 2009, he challenged Obama Administration efforts to strengthen H-2A worker protections.

North Carolina Legal Aid battled Eury for years over complaints of wage theft, discrimination, and bad living and working conditions, until he signed a collective bargaining agreement with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in 2004.

Despite his political clout, in 2015 Eury was forced to plead guilty to two counts of defrauding the U.S. government, fined $615,000 and was sentenced to thirteen months in prison. Nevertheless, the North Carolina Growers Association has been allowed to continue; last year, the Department of Labor approved its applications for 11,947 workers.



ROYAL CITY, WA- Jose Luis Sosa Sanchez and his fellow H2A contract workers in the kitchen of the barracks where they live in central Washington.


Meanwhile, CSI became a recruitment behemoth, supplying workers far beyond North Carolina. Its website boasts that it recruits more than 25,000 workers annually, through its network of offices in Mexico. A CSI handout for employers says "CSI has designed a system that is able to move thousands of workers through a very complicated U.S. Government program."

Workers recruited through CSI must sign a form acknowledging that their employer can fire them for inadequate performance, in which case they will have to return to Mexico. "The boss must report me to the authorities," it warns, "which can obviously affect my ability to return to the U.S. legally in the future."

Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, notes that H-2A workers are inherently vulnerable for several reasons. "Virtually all have had to get loans to support their families until they can begin sending money home, as well as to cover the cost of visas and transportation," he explains. "That basically makes them indentured servants. They have the least amount of legal protection, even less than undocumented immigrants."

H-2A workers are also excluded from the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and beholden to one employer. "Even undocumented workers can vote with their feet if they don't like the job," Morrison says. "If H-2A workers complain, they get fired, lose their housing, and have to leave the country."

Many H-2A workers feel conflicted about their situation.



WAPATO, WA- After work Francisco Ramos, an H2A guest worker, talks with his wife and children in Mexico. These barracks belong to the Green Acres company.  Ramos' wife and three children live in the municipo of Ajutla in Oaxaca, Mexico, and he keeps their photos in his phone.


"We have papers, so we don't feel in danger," said Jose Luis Sosa Sanchez in a recent interview, at in a camp belonging to Stemilt Growers near Royal City, Washington. But he and other workers can't buy property and establish a sense of connection to the community.

"We just come to work. That's all," he says. And there is no time-and-a half for working more than eight hours. "We work six days, and sometimes seven. And the work here is hard. You're really exhausted at the end of the day."

Sosa expressed sadness over being separated from his family, including two young daughters. "It's hard to be far away from them, but what can I do? To move ahead I have to do this. So I talk with them on the phone. What else can I do? Every three days or so, in the afternoon after work. My wife says she feels OK, but who knows?"

Sergio Alberto Ponce Ponce, staying in the same barracks, had similar feelings. "I miss my wife. I've never been apart from her before. We sleep in each other's arms, but here, no. I call her every day. She'll send me a text, and then I'll call her the next chance I get-in a break at work or at lunch, and when I get back after work before it gets dark."

Ponce looked forward to going home to Mexico, but plans to return. "I'm going to keep working like this for as long as I can," he says. "I'd like to live here, but I have my family there."



ROYAL CITY, WA- H2A contract worker Sergio Alberto Ponce Ponce in the kitchen of the barracks of Stemilt Growers.


In 2013, representatives of the Washington Farm Labor Association, originally part of the Washington State Farm Bureau now called WAFLA, showed up at a large Washington State winery, Mercer Canyons. Garrett Benton, manager of the grape department and viticulturist, was then given a plan by the company owners for hiring workers for the following season.

"The plan separated out work to be done by the H-2A workers and work to be done by the local farm workers," Benton recalled in a declaration for a suit filed by Columbia Legal Services. "It left very little work for the local farm workers. Based on the plan and the presentation by the WAFLA people, I believed it was a done deal that the company would be bringing in H-2A workers in 2013."

The rules governing the H-2A program require employers to first advertise the jobs among local residents. Local workers must be offered jobs at the same pay the company plans to offer H-2A workers, and the H-2A workers must be paid at a rate that supposedly will not undermine the wages of local workers. That wage rate is set by the unemployment agency in each state, and is usually slightly above minimum wage.

But there is virtually no policing of the requirement that growers demonstrate a lack of local workers, or any efforts to hire them beyond a notice at the unemployment office.

Benton said many of Mercer Canyons' longtime local workers were told there was no work available, or were referred to jobs paying $9.88/hour while H-2A workers were being hired at $12/hour. The company, he said, even reduced the hours of those local workers it did hire in order to get them to quit.



WAPATO, WA- Luis Arias, an immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico, thins apricots so that the fruit on the tree will have space to grow.


"Working conditions got so bad for the local workers that they eventually went on strike on May 1, 2013," Benton stated. "They felt strongly that they were being given harder, less desirable work for less pay.... Mercer Canyons was doing everything it could to discourage local farm workers from gaining employment." The class-action lawsuit involving more than 600 farmworkers was settled a year ago, and Mercer Canyons agreed to pay workers $545,000 plus attorneys' fees, for a total of $1.2 million.

In central Washington, the barracks springing up for H-2A workers all look the same-dusty tan prefab buildings built around a common grass area. Billboards next to rural roads advertise the services of companies including "H-2A Construction Inc." This is a product of WAFLA's aggressive growth strategy.

"Our goal is to have 50,000 H-2A workers on the West Coast three years from now," WAFLA's director Dan Fazio told Michigan apple growers in 2015. In 2016, the group took in $7.7 million in fees for its panoply of H-2A services. It handles program application and compliance, provides transportation, recruits workers and gets their visas processed, and conducts on-site meetings with them.

The premise behind the H-2A program is that it allows recruitment of workers by an individual grower who demonstrates it can't find people to hire locally. Workers are then bound to the grower, and don't function as a general labor pool. But a labor pool is exactly what WAFLA advertises. 

WAFLA's "shared contract model" lets multiple growers share the same group of workers during the same harvest season. Workers might work for one grower one day, and another the next, at widely separated fields. The "sequential model" lets growers bring in workers for one harvest, and then pass them on to another grower for another harvest.



ROYAL CITY, WA- Barracks under construction in central Washington built to house contract workers brought to the U.S. by growers under the H2A visa program. 


In its annual report for 2014, WAFLA boasted about helping block a proposed Department of Labor rule to make employers who use the H-2A program provide housing for family members of domestic workers. "Can you imagine a worker with a family of six demanding housing for his family a month after the start of the season when nearly all beds are full?" it asked.

WAFLA has a close relationship with the Washington State Employment Security Department. Craig Carroll, the agency's agricultural program director overseeing H-2A certification, spoke at the group's "H-2A Workforce Summit" in January 2017, sharing the stage with numerous WAFLA staff members and Roxana Macias, CSI's director of compliance. Macias herself worked for the department for two years, and then for WAFLA for three years, before moving to CSI.

While the Employment Security Department is charged with enforcing the rules regarding H-2A contracts, its website states: "The agriculture employment and wage report will no longer be provided beginning with the May 2014 report due to a decline in funding." The department did request an investigation by the state attorney general into charges by Columbia Legal Services that WAFLA had tried to fix wage rates at a low level. That investigation is still pending.

Washington State also helps WAFLA by allowing it to use state subsidies for low-income farm worker housing to build barracks. This includes the ninety-six-bed Ringold Seasonal Farmworker Housing in Mesa, Washington. Subsidies were used to build another grower association's $6 million, 200-bed complex called Brender Creek in Cashmere, Washington.

Daniel Ford at Columbia Legal Aid complained about these handouts to the Washington Department of Commerce, noting that the state's own surveys showed that 10 percent of Washington farm workers were living outdoors in a car or in a tent, and 20 percent were living in garages, shacks, or "places not intended to serve as bedrooms." Corina Grigoras, the department's Housing Finance Unit managing director, responded that she couldn't "prohibit H-2A farmworkers residing in housing funded through the Housing Assistance Program," or even "require that housing assistance program housing be rented to H-2A employers only at market rates."



BURLINGTON, WA - In 2013 migrant farm workers went on strike against Sakuma Farms, a large berry grower in northern Washington State, and blocked the entrance into the labor camp where they live during the picking season.  The strikers wanted to stop the grower from bringing in H-2A workers from Mexico to do the work they usually do every year.


Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community2Community, a farm worker advocacy organization in Bellingham, Washington, says "the impact of this system on the ability of farm workers to organize is disastrous."

In 2013, when Sakuma Brothers Farms' longtime resident workers went on strike for at least $14 an hour, they were told that the company would not exceed the H-2A wage rate of  $12.39. In effect, the guest worker rate was used as a ceiling to keep wages from going up. Familias Unidas por la Justicia was organized during that strike. Its president, Ramon Torres, met the H-2A workers Sakuma had hired, "they said that they'd been told that if they talked with us they'd be sent back to Mexico," he remembered.

After the 2013 harvest, strikers received form letters telling them they'd been fired. Sakuma Brothers Farms then applied for 438 H-2A workers, enough to replace its entire workforce, saying it couldn't find local labor.  Familias Unidas collected letters from the strikers saying they were available to work, and turned them in to the Department of Labor.  Sakuma Brothers Farms withdrew the H-2A application, and had to rehire the strikers.  Because the workers saved their jobs, the union survived and finally signed its first contract last year. 

After the events last year that led to Silva's death, workers at Sarbanand Farms reached out to the new union and joined it during their protest. But Sarbanand insists that H-2A workers have no such organizing rights, saying in a statement: "Their H-2A employment contracts specifically state that they are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and H-2A regulations do not otherwise allow for workers engaging in such concerted activity." The statement added that when employees quit or are terminated, "the employer is not responsible for the worker's return transportation or subsistence cost, and the worker is not entitled to any payment guarantees."

In response to the organizing effort by Community2Community and Familias Unidas, growers launched a website to argue their case.  It claims, "The guest worker program provides higher pay for guest and domestic workers, plus the highest level of protection for workers anywhere." It features a photo of Guillen, accusing her of "outrageous lies against the Sumas farm." It says Silva died of "untreated diabetes," of which the company was "unaware."



SAN FRANCISCO, CA - Sakuma Farms striker Anselmo Aguilar is accompanied by Sarait Martinez of the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales, as they go to the Department of Labor in San Francisco to protest the company's application to import H2A guest workers after their strike.


While the website conveys a certain desperate tone, most growers seem optimistic about the H2-A program's future, due in part to the election of Donald Trump as President. While Trump has railed against some guest worker programs, especially the H-1B program used extensively by the high-tech industry, he has been conspicuously silent about H-2A. In fact, Trump's family employs H-2A workers on its Virginia vineyard. And the H-2A program is popular among some of the most powerful Republicans in Congress, including Representative Kevin McCarthy, GOP House Majority Leader.

"We are very positive about the Trump Administration," WAFLA head Dan Fazio said at a meeting of his group in early 2017. "I don't think there is a person in this room who voted for President Trump who wouldn't vote for him again tomorrow."

Last fall, U.S. Representative Bob Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia, introduced a bill to expand the H-2A program. The bill, HR 4092, would create an H-2C visa category to replace H-2A, certifying the recruitment of 450,000 workers annually, a cap that would grow by 10 percent a year. Growers could employ workers year-round and re-enroll them for the following year while they are still in the country. Eventually up to 900,000 guest workers could be employed in the United States at any one time. Wages would be based at 115 percent of the federal or state minimum wage, or $8.34 an hour in states with the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

As the Trump Administration beefs up raids and enforcements, growers want to ensure a continued supply of cheap labor.

"ICE does audits and raids, and then growers demand changes that will make H2-A workers even cheaper by eliminating wage requirements, or the requirement that they provide housing," charges United Farm Workers Vice-President Armando Elenes. "Reducing the available labor and the increased use of H2-A are definitely connected. Growers don't want to look at how they can make the workplace better and attract more workers. They just want what's cheaper."



YAKIMA, WA- The hands of Manuel Ortiz, who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a bracero in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and spent decades working as a farm worker in California and Washington, show a life of work.


David Bacon is a writer and photojournalist, whose latest book is In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte (Colegio de la Frontera Norte - University of California Press).