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A painful way to make a living, but for some migrants, little choice

 

NOVEMBER 2, 2009

A painful way to make a living, but for some migrants, little choice.

The following appeared Sunday, November 1, 2009 in the Sandusky Register. Read below, or view on the Register's Web site.
Clouds hang low in the light blue sky as workers dressed in flannel shirts, faded jeans and dusty baseball caps file out of a white school bus into an enormous field full of green pepper plants.

With mechanical efficiency, the 80 or so workers -- all men, all Hispanic, all younger than 45 -- begin sifting through the green, bushy leaves to find shiny, softball-sized peppers, which they pitch into plastic baskets they carry at their sides.

After the men fill their baskets past the brim, they hoist the 20-pound bins to their shoulders and shuffle over to the trailer. The pickers toss the baskets up to a pair of young men who straddle the crates and dump the peppers inside. It takes about 45 peppers to fill a basket, and a veteran field worker can fill one in less than two minutes. Even the slowest pickers take no longer than a few minutes to fill their bins.
 
The following appeared Sunday, November 1, 2009 in the Sandusky Register. Read below, or view on the Register's Web site.

A painful way to make a living, but for some migrants, little choice
By Cory Frolik

Clouds hang low in the light blue sky as workers dressed in flannel shirts, faded jeans and dusty baseball caps file out of a white school bus into an enormous field full of green pepper plants.

With mechanical efficiency, the 80 or so workers -- all men, all Hispanic, all younger than 45 -- begin sifting through the green, bushy leaves to find shiny, softball-sized peppers, which they pitch into plastic baskets they carry at their sides.

After the men fill their baskets past the brim, they hoist the 20-pound bins to their shoulders and shuffle over to the trailer. The pickers toss the baskets up to a pair of young men who straddle the crates and dump the peppers inside. It takes about 45 peppers to fill a basket, and a veteran field worker can fill one in less than two minutes. Even the slowest pickers take no longer than a few minutes to fill their bins.

It then takes thousands of the peppers -- about 18 to 20 bushels worth -- to fill a crate. It's strenuous work that takes a serious toll on the muscles at the base of the spine. Hunched over all day long, the workers often develop excruciating aches and pains in their lower backs.

"It's so hard on you and so hard on your back," said George Gamboa, who did the work for years and years. "Eventually, your back just goes numb. I mean, it all depends on how much you worked the day before, but you'd usually come back to work still sore."

But through the discomfort, the men push on. They are all migrant farm workers and understand pain is just part of the job.

Hard work

Born in Naples, Fla., which is along the southern coast of the Sunshine State, Gamboa was already busy in the fields before he turned 13, which is not uncommon for agricultural laborers.

His parents, who crossed into the U.S. as young adults, are crew leaders who have worked for Wiers Farm in rural Willard for 31 years. His folks still divide their time between the Midwest and the south coast, following the harvest. Gamboa, now 35 with some gray in his beard, also used to hopscotch between the Sunshine State and the Buckeye State when he was younger. As a teenager, Gamboa walked behind celery tractors to make sure none of the product fell off the wagon. When it did, it was his job to scoop it up and return it to the trailer bed.

Although the job was simple, it wasn't easy.

Walking behind the trailer all day meant Gamboa traversed miles and miles. Sore feet were an almost daily occurrence, and his legs usually felt no better. Eager to give his feet a break, he eventually took a job as a cutter, which means he used rubber bands and a garden knife to bundle together bunches of greens. But cutting came with its own hardships. It wears out the lower back because the task requires workers to be bent over for hours on end. But all of Gamboa's work paid off when he was promoted four years ago to crew leader and then two years ago to food safety coordinator at Wiers Farm. Although he is seven months away from becoming a certified radiologist, Gamboa can't see himself giving up farm work entirely.

Gamboa was once a migrant worker and always will be one. It's a large part of who he is, and the work continues to have enduring appeal.

"I don't think I'll give it up. I think I'll still come back," Gamboa said. "I love it out here -- it's something I can't get out of myself, out of my system. It is hard work, but I don't know, when you're born working like that, it stays in you."

Nothing's easy on the farm

Migrant workers are the sweat and muscle behind the vast and complex Wiers Farm operation, which reaches from Michigan to Ohio to Florida. Although Wiers Farm is one of the largest farming operations in this region, making it one of the largest employers of migrant farm workers, there are many others close by. This region has the heaviest concentration of migrant farm workers in the state, with 5,320 in 2008, according to a 2008 Ohio migrant census prepared by the Ohio Department of Health. Aside from Wiers Farm, other big farms and employers of migrant workers in this region include Buurma Farms in Celeryville, Corso's Nursery in Erie County and Gonya Farm in Sandusky County.

About 85 percent of the land in Huron County is used for agribusiness, and the land breakdown of the surrounding counties is not much different, said Huron County auditor Roland Tkach. But field work is just one component of getting fruits and vegetables from the ground to market.

About 180 people also work in the Wiers Farm packaging plant, where the crops are sent to be cleaned, placed in boxes, refrigerated and then shipped off to restaurants and retail chains. Field workers can make significantly more than minimum wage because their jobs are piece rate -- meaning they make a base rate of $4.25 an hour, but also are paid based on how many baskets of product they fill.

But the work in the plants is almost all minimum wage. While sheltered from the elements, workers in the packaging plant, like field workers, also put in 12- to 16-hour days. They spend the hours examining an endless stream of produce, and they are on their feet during the entire shift. Standing for hours and hours tightens the legs until they hurt. But migrant farm workers in the fields or plants do not openly complain about their jobs.

They do the work because they must to support their families or themselves. They've traveled unbelievable distances through unbelievable hardships to get here. Gamboa said he's talked to men and women who endured freezing-cold nights in the desert surrounded by snakes and scorpions to cross over into the United States. He said many workers crossed the unmerciful desert with almost no food and water. They worked so hard to get here. They will endure almost anything to stay here. There's no reason to complain. Complaining rocks the boat, and no one who values their job wants to rock the boat.

Don't rock the boat

Sylvia Rodriguez claims she was fired for rocking the boat. She says she was unwilling to take her supervisor's abuse, which led to her entire family getting booted from the farm only hours later.

"I got fired yesterday for defending myself," Rodriguez said. "They don't want you defending yourself. If they yell at you, you'd better shut up and get back to work."

Rodriguez, 38, from Seadrift, Texas, could not find work in the Lone Star State, but learned from a friend in Columbus about all the agricultural work available in Ohio. She moved up to Huron County with her husband, Alejandro Rodriguez Sr., and 18-year-old son, Alejandro Rodriguez Jr., and together the family worked at a local farm. But only five weeks away from becoming eligible for unemployment, Rodriguez and her family were sacked, leaving them clueless as to what to do next. They had no idea where they would go or how they would pay to get there. They didn't have enough money saved up to get back to Texas, and they didn't know how they'd find another job.

Rodriguez fought her termination by contacting Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, which stands up for the rights of migrant workers. With the agency's help, Rodriguez and her family got their jobs back.

Although the family ultimately reclaimed their jobs, the elder Alejandro said that does not alter the fact their supervisor was a tyrant. While bunching onions, Rodriguez claims she was insulted by her boss -- a crew leader -- who was mocking her group's quality of work. When she defended their output, Rodriguez claims she was first sent home and then later told she no longer had a job. Her son and husband were also informed they had two days to pack up and leave the camp.

"I got fired for talking back to her, and my husband got fired for not shutting me up," Rodriguez said. "My son, too, was fired."

Although Rodriguez said she thinks her boss -- not her employer -- was guilty of abuse, she said migrant farm workers are often treated unfairly because so many are terrified of losing their jobs or being deported. Fear keeps them in line. Fear keeps them quiet.

This happens all too often, said Mark Heller, managing attorney for the migrant farm worker and immigration program with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality. He said because so many migrant farm workers are undocumented -- 80 percent or more -- it gives employers a lot of leverage over their work force.

"Farm worker or agriculture labor is not protected under the National Labor Relations Act, so there's a different federal law that gives them some protection in recruitment, housing, terms and conditions of employment," Heller said. "They don't have the right to form a union, whereas most employers have to bargain in good faith with a group of employees who want to unionize."