PESTICIDE ACTION NETWORK NORTH AMERICA UPDATES SERVICE
New Studies Show Decline in Conditions for California
August 19, 1994
Just and humane treatment of farmworkers is an important
component of sustainable agriculture. Despite encouraging
advances toward more sustainable food and agricultural
systems over the past decade, conditions for farm laborers in
California have declined during the same period. Two recent
reports by the California Institute for Rural Studies
document and explain this trend.
The first report, "Mixtec Migrants in California Agriculture:
A New Cycle of Poverty," examines the living and working
conditions experienced by indigenous migrants from the
Mexican state of Oaxaca. The report is derived from a
detailed interview-based survey of 131 Mixtec farmworkers, as
well as ethnographic field work in both Mexico and the U.S.
The authors estimate that 20,000 to 30,000 Mixtecs now reside
in California, representing between 5%-10% of the
agricultural labor force. Having fled their homeland due to
the economic crisis in Mexico during the early 1980s, the
Mixtecs are among the most impoverished workers in the U.S.
today. The cultural heritage of the Mixtecs poses special
barriers to integration into U.S. society. Most Mixtecs
speak neither English nor Spanish, and are subject to racism
even from other Mexican workers due to their distinctive
appearance and language.
Key findings of the study include:
-- Mixtec farmworkers earned less than the minimum wage in
one-quarter of the jobs in which they were employed during
1989-90, and almost one-half had worked in at least one job
paying less than minimum wage.
-- Mixtecs are subject to high labor standards violations,
with over one-quarter of those interviewed reporting
nonpayment of wages on at least on occasion.
-- Mixtecs are concentrated in jobs in which payments for
obligatory services such as rides to work are a condition of
-- Mixtecs are concentrated in jobs with short duration, and
are more migratory compared to other Mexican farmworkers.
The authors argue that Mixtecs are the latest in a historic
cycle of ethnic replacement in California farm labor. Farm
employers have turned to successive groups -- Chinese,
Japanese, Filipino, Midwestern "Okie," and mestizo Mexican
workers -- to maintain the cheap labor supply on which
California's agricultural economy depends. Mixtec migrants
constitute a large pool of new labor which can be hired for
lower wages and has the effect of undercutting gains in wages
and working conditions made possible for mestizo Mexican
farmworkers during the 1970s. As evidence, the authors cite
the 10% decline in real wages for California farmworkers over
the past decade.
The second report, "California's Agricultural Dilemma: Higher
Production and Lower Wages," is a statistical profile of how
recent changes in agricultural production have combined with
immigration policies and other forces to lower farm wages.
Significant acreage increases in fruit, vegetable and
horticultural crops have increased labor demand by some 20%
over the past 15 years. At the same time, economic crisis in
Mexico and the 1986 immigration reform law have dramatically
increased the supply of labor. Rather than a labor shortage
once feared by growers, a tremendous over-supply of farm
labor exists. This oversupply is correlated with a large
decline in real wages during the 1980s.
--Hired labor accounts for at least 80% of all work performed
on California farms.
-- Just one-half of the farms in California are owned and
operated by farmers. The other half are owned by individuals
whose principal occupation is something other than farming.
-- At least half of all farmworkers families live in poverty,
as determined by their median family income and family-size
standards determined by the federal government.
Both of these reports demonstrate the deteriorating
conditions for California farmworkers. Many people hoped
that successful union organizing during the 1970s would
reverse the historic pattern of treatment of farm laborers as
second class citizens. However, events of the past 15 years
have undercut the gains made at that time and have led to
conditions that in many respects are even worse than those in
the early 1970s. Future organizing efforts will be extremely
difficult given the current oversupply of labor and the
likely prospect of continuing immigration.
Immigration reform and vigorous enforcement of labor
regulations are clearly needed. Ultimately, however, these
are only partial solutions. As the authors of the Mixtec
report conclude, the long-term solution must be sustainable
development in Mexico, along with sustainable rural community
economic development in the state of California. In the
emerging global economy, the structural ties linking rural
Mexico and rural California are increasingly evident. Given
their interlinked fates, it will be critical to sustain vital
communities by promoting locally-controlled development
projects in both places. The work of Mixtec self-help
organizations, described in the CIRS report, provides one
model of how this vital work is beginning.
Source: Sustainable Agriculture/Technical Reviews, Spring
Contact: California Institue for Rural Studies (CIRS), P.O.
Box 2143, Davis, CA 95617; phone (916) 756-6555; fax (916)
756-7429. Both reports can be ordered from CIRS. "Mixtec
Migrants in California Agriculture" is US$12.50 plus US$4
shipping. "California's Agricultural Dilemma" is US$7.50
plus $1.50 shipping.
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