Policy brief the status of california farm workers since 1990: progress or retrenchment

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A Literature Review and Policy Recommendations – March 2, 2011

Prepared for the

Central Coast Health Network

We had all lived through the fields, or our parents had. We shared that common humiliation. How could we progress, as a people even if we lived in the cities, while the farm workers, men and women or our color, were condemned to a life without pride? How could we progress as a people while the farm workers, who symbolized our history in this land, were denied self-respect? How could our people believe that their children could become lawyers and doctors and judges and business people while this shame, this injustice, was permitted to continue?”
Cesar Chavez

Speech at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco

November 9, 1984

Farm workers in California’s agricultural valleys have been denied a decent life throughout the 20th century. Although they have tried on many occasions to organize beginning in 1903, they have encountered resistance and violence, and remained exploited by the state’s biggest industry and largely ignored by its political leadership. Despite the long delayed victories in the organizing and political arenas in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and despite the fact that California’s agricultural industry continues to generate well over $20 billion annually ($27 billion in 2000), farm workers continue to lag well behind the rest of society in terms of income, health, housing, education, and other socio-economic conditions.
This policy brief suggests that no-cost public policies can be enacted, and strategic partnerships forged between government and the private sector for purposes of initiating comprehensive and viable approaches for improving the quality of life of California farm workers. Given the vital role they play in a multi-billion industry that produces much of the food that sustains America, we owe them our commitment to address their plight.

Intent of Policy Brief
This policy brief is intended to provide advocates and elected officials with objective information underscoring the structural problems affecting the well being of farm workers throughout California. In addition, this brief is designed to put into perspective the reality that the condition of farm workers has changed little since the early 1900s when farm workers were primarily Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and Mexicans, to the present day in which farm workers are almost exclusively Latino. Finally, it is the intention of the author that this policy brief will be utilized to rekindle discussion about farm worker needs and incite action by advocacy groups, policy makers, farm workers and others to create, enact and implement initiatives that will seriously improve the situation of farm workers in 2011.




Status of California Farm Workers: A Literature Review Summary



Overview of Farm Worker Studies: 1990 - 2009

Living and working conditions for farm workers have historically been horrific. Rental housing in migrant camps, when available, was and is often in poor condition, unfairly priced, and overcrowded. Housing has often times been comprised of metal shacks, and often lacking running water, indoor toilets, heat or electricity, and often infested with mosquitoes. Workers were often forced to buy overpriced goods in stores operated and owned by growers, thereby forcing them into a cycle of debt that left them obligated to their employers (“I owe my soul to the company store”). The majority of farm workers were required to secure jobs through labor contractors or agents who often demanded bribes and favors in return for providing them employment. Farm workers must often perform exhausting work for low wages under difficult or dangerous conditions, and often have no access to clean or cool water, or toilets, and are often denied breaks. Workers are often subject to dehydration and dangerous pesticides.
Changes have been made to these scenarios but not necessarily for the best. Housing is even scarcer today than in the 1990’s. There is less government migrant housing in 2011 than at any other time in the past 40 years. In many counties throughout agricultural producing counties, one finds farm workers living in substandard housing as well as in make shift housing including tents, caves, housing made of cardboard and pieces of wood paneling with no running water or electricity. However, farm labor contractors and growers are now required to offer drinking water, toilets, and a resting period and shelter from the heat.
California growers have also gone through a transformation in how they see and treat the farm worker labor force. A new generation of grower has evolved and the debate has begun to be more of a discussion of how to best address the needs of farm workers who growers recognize are connected to their wellbeing and economic standing. There is a more positive attitude but despite the changes made and attitudes improved, the farmworker in the State of California continues to live in today’s equivalent of the conditions and life the documentary that Edwin Morrow narrated in 1965 “Harvest of Shame”.

The Farm Worker Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s
In 1965, grape pickers were making an average of $.90 per hour, plus ten cents per "lug" (basket), compared to the national average of $2.58-$2.68. Growers largely ignored state laws regulating working standards in California.
The plight of farm workers was a theme that played a part of California and American culture during the 1960’s and 70’s. This was largely due to the discovery of these workers and their horrific working conditions by the national media and the movement led by Cesar Chavez. Americans were able to see the pictures of these struggling workers on TV, their misery, and the terrible living and working conditions they had to endure. We read of the violence that surrounded their fight for respect and economic rights, and their efforts to defend their dignity. Presidential candidates and celebrities took on their cause; millions of Americans did so likewise through their support of the national grape boycotts organized by Chavez and his farm worker labor union, the United Farm Workers (UFW).
Eventually, the sweat and blood of Chavez, the UFW, and the supporters of the boycott, produced California’s landmark legislation in 1975, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. This law provided farm workers with the right to engage in collective bargaining and would enable Chavez and the UFW to be victorious in union elections, in the political arena and with public policy, and in many other areas for farm workers and the Latino community in general.
Although the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) would enable more than 50,000 farm workers to be protected by union contracts within several years following its passage, Chavez openly acknowledged that many challenges continued and would continue for decades to come.
1984: The Future of Farm Workers and Hispanics in California
In his presentation before the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on November 9, 1984, Cesar Chavez spoke about how far farm workers had come through the work of the UFW. He spoke about how farm workers had allowed themselves to become “…victims in a democratic society” where abusive and discriminatory acts, and being treated like “…beasts of burden” had been the norm for many years. But he also discussed when the UFW began to address this treatment through worker’s rights and organizing, he saw they were “…creating confidence and pride and hope in an entire people’s ability to create the future.”
Chavez also spoke about how he had no doubts about the future of the UFW and its ability to have a positive impact. He talked about how he saw more Latinos entering college, running and being elected to public office and “…asserting their rights on a broad range of issues and in many communities across this land.” He was optimistic because he felt that the least educated and the poorest in the Latino community had begun to be empowered. He was optimistic about the future of farm workers and the Latino community because thousands of children and grandchildren of farm workers had moved out of the fields and barrios and into politics. He felt this was a movement that could be not reversed.
While Chavez was proud of the milestone ALRA, he was clear that politicians and growers were undermining it since 1982. Chavez spoke passionately about the continued challenges facing farm workers e.g. pesticide and water poisoning, environmental damage, child labor, poor wages, lack of accountability of growers. However, he would come back to his belief that the things that had changed for farm workers and the Latino community could not be reversed.
He closed his presentation by saying “like the other immigrant groups, the day will come when we win the economic and political rewards, which are in keeping with our numbers in society. The say will come when the politicians will do the right thing for our people out of political necessity and not out of charity or idealism. That day may not come this year. That day may not come during this decade, but it will come someday. And when that day comes, we shall see the fulfillment of that passage from the Book of Matthew in the New Testament: “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” And on that day, our nation shall fulfill its creed, and that fulfillment shall enrich us all.”

Despite the optimism of Cesar Chavez’s forecast in 1984, the influence of Latino politicians in enacting a state holiday honor his birth date, and the continual increase in Latino elected officials, the data from various farm worker studies indicate the progress of farm workers has not proceeded at the pace he expected or hoped for.
In general, farm workers continue to live in poverty or near poverty, suffer from chronic health conditions at higher rates than the general public, have little access to health insurance, and are undereducated and speak little English.

Status of California Farm Workers: A Literature Review Summary
The following is an overview of the key findings of research conducted on California’s farm workers from 1990 through 2009 (a summary of these reports are located in the appendix).

1998 NAWS Survey

  • About 80% earn less than $10,000 per year

  • 3 out of 5 worker families live below the poverty level

  • Over 50% of workers own a vehicle

  • few workers receive social services; majority of such recipients receive services from WIC Program.

2003-04 NAWS Survey

  • 75% of individual farm workers, and 52% of farm worker families earn under $15,000 per year

  • 43% of individual farm workers, and 30% of farm worker families made less than $10,000 a year,

June 2005 NAWS Survey

  • Three-quarters of all individual farm workers earned less than $15,000 a year.

Housing - 2003-04 NAWS Survey

  • 4% live in housing offered by their employer or labor contractors (a steady decrease in farm worker housing since 1990-91)


1990-91 NAWS survey

  • 71% of farm workers completed eight or fewer years of formal education.

  • Spanish is the primary language for 88% of farm workers.

  • 38% speak English a “little”, 8% “some”, and 11% say they speak it well.

  • 3% are native English speakers, and 7% are bilingual.

  • 14% can read English well.

  • 33% tried to improve their skills by taking an adult education class, most commonly English.

1998 NAWS Survey

  • 95% of California farm workers communicate in Spanish

  • Farm workers have typically completed 6 years of education

  • Less than 10% of foreign-born farm workers speak or read English fluently

June 2005 NAWS Survey

  • Almost all spoke Spanish (96%).

  • Less than 10% spoke or read English fluently.

  • Farm workers typically had completed 6 years of education.

  • A fifth of workers had taken some type of adult education class (21%).

Health Conditions – 2000 Suffering in Silence

  • 18% of male farm workers had at least 2 of 3 risk factors for chronic disease

  • Incidence of high blood pressure is greater than among all U.S. adults.

  • 81% of men and 76% of women had unhealthy weight.

  • 28% of men and 37% of women were obese.

  • Men suffer from iron deficiency anemia at a rate of 4 times greater than U.S. men.

  • More than 1/3 males had at least one decayed tooth.

  • Almost 40% of females had at least one broken or missing tooth.

Health Coverage – 2000 Suffering in Silence

  • Nearly 70% lacked any form of health insurance

  • Government-funded programs covered only 7% for low-income persons.

  • 16.5% reported their employer offered health insurance, but almost 1/3 did not participate in the plan because most could not afford the premiums or co-pays.

  • 32% of males reported they’d never been to a doctor/clinic in their lives.

  • A majority of women had a medical visit within the previous five months.

  • 50% of males and 40% of females had never been to a dentist.

  • Over two-thirds never had an eye-care visit.

Working Conditions 2003-04 NAWS Survey

  • farm workers report there is an increase in their employer offering drinking water and toilets,

  • number of farm workers who had handled pesticides decreased and the number (85%) of farm workers who received training in the handling of pesticides increased, from 1998 to 2004,

  • standards and enforcement legislation for transporting workers was approved by the California legislature.

  • State legislation was enacted requiring rest periods and water breaks to prevent sunstrokes and more serious heat injuries.

Birthplace and Employment Eligibility

1990-91 NAWS Survey

  • 90% are foreign-born. Two-thirds have been in the U.S. longer than eight years.

  • 10% are ineligible for employment in the U.S.

  • Nearly 66% legalized their status under the IRCA program.

1998 NAWS Survey

  • 95% are foreign-born (95%) and most (91%) are from Mexico.

  • 1/3 have been in the U.S. for 15 years or more and 1/4 for less than 2 years.

  • 40% are not legally eligible for U.S. employment.

2005 NAWS Survey

  • 99% are Hispanic – 91% were born in Mexico, 4% in Central America and 5% in the U.S.

  • Workers lived in the U.S. an average of 11 years.

  • Nearly a fifth of workers had been in the U.S. less than 2 years (18%).

  • 57% were unauthorized (57%) and 10% were U.S. citizens.

  • 33% were migrant, and 86% of migrant workers were international shuttle migrants.

  • The percentage of workers of indigenous origin is growing rapidly and this population is often considered the fastest growing population in California.


1990-91 NAWS Survey

  • 3 of 5 California SAS workers are less than 35 years old.

  • 75% are men.

  • 66% are married, and almost as many (60%) are parents.

  • 9 of 10 are Hispanic (82% Mexicans, 7% Mexican-American and 2% other Hispanics).

  • 60% workers reside with a spouse, child, or parent while employed in farm work.

1998 NAWS Survey

  • 80% are men with an average age of 33 years

  • 3 out of 5 are married and more than 50% are married

  • 2/3 of the parents reside with their spouses or children or both while employed in farm work

June 2005 NAWS Survey

  • The median age was 32 years.

  • 73% were male.

  • Sixty-four% were married and 54% were parents.

  • 49% lived with no immediate family members (49%).

  • Farm workers typically had completed 6 years of education.

  • Three-quarters of all individual farm workers earned less than $15,000 a year.

  • Nearly two-thirds (62%) of farm workers resided in single family homes and nearly all workers (96%) lived off-farm in properties not owned or administered by their employer.

Agricultural Industry 2003-04 NAWS Survey

  • California’s agricultural industry continues to generate over $20 billion annually ($27 billion in 2000)

The data contained in this overview of studies confirms what many serving California farm workers have seen and experienced --- they are a vital and invaluable workforce for an industry that generates more than $20 billion annually for California’s economy, but do not receive a salary, pension, support or assistance that reflects the contribution they make to the state.
Report after report point out how little progress has been made since 1990 in the health status of farm workers and the corresponding socio-economic conditions they continue to face. Despite the episodic media attention that some farm worker issues receive, the on-going conditions and standards of life for farm workers have not received adequate or sustained actions from policy-makers and institutions of California.
There have been many positive and practical recommendations on policy and programmatic initiatives that were contained in some of these reports; initiatives that could lead to long-term structural improvements for farm workers. However, there has never been a comprehensive initiative developed for or by farm workers that identifies key priority issues nor a timeframe for addressing or resolving them, although several recommendations pointed out the importance of developing a comprehensive agenda.
In addition, an important recommendation was included in the “Bounty of Food: The Poverty of Health” report by The California Endowment which advocated the importance of having “more champions” for farm workers in the public policy arena in order to sustain a focus and priority of their needs. It was

envisioned that these “champions” in policy-making institutions would move an agenda for improving farm workers health conditions. Unfortunately this effort did not materialize. Again, despite the media attention that some farm worker related issues have received over time, e.g., the water shortage problem and its consequences, it has not led to any major new initiatives. The underlying foundation of poor wages, seasonal employment, poverty, limited access to health care services including dental, low percentage of health insurance coverage, and a profile of high risk to chronic and environmental illnesses to name some of the key issues, remain stagnant or have worsen over time.

Many recommendations and initiatives that would have an immediate and long term benefit to improving the health conditions and access to health care services for farm workers require an increase in funding from the State of California. Given these times of fiscal and budgetary pressures on state and local government, it would be impractical to expect such an increase. However, there are various initiatives that the California State Legislature, the Governor of California and philanthropic foundations could develop and pursue that are consistent with the findings and recommendations of the studies and reports included in this Policy Brief.
We recommend the legislature, government, the nonprofit community, and foundations undertake the following actions:
1. Suspend the realignment of state services until counties are given benchmarks for serving farm

2. Incentivize County-based Federally Qualified Health Centers to expand services to farm

3. Create a Task Force to design comprehensive, long-term strategies for improving the health

and other conditions of California farm workers.
4. Require the Task Force to work with philanthropic foundations to regularly survey farm workers and share their findings with government and the legislature.

The author would like to acknowledge and thank Dr. Maximiliano Cuevas, Executive Director of Clinicas de Salud del Valle de Salinas (Salinas, CA) and its Board of Directors, as well as Mr. Robert Juarez, Executive Director of Clinicas del Camino Real (Oxnard, CA), for their historical and continuing commitment to serving farm worker, underserved and indigent communities. Also, for their leadership in advocating for these populations and the nonprofit clinics that serve them, their vision in developing a coordinated health care delivery system that effectively serves the disenfranchised in their respective counties, and their efforts to replicate this vision on a statewide level.
About the Author
From 1989 to 2009 Arnoldo Torres was a partner with this brother Rodrigo Torres in the public policy consulting firm Torres & Torres. The firm assisted primarily nonprofit organizations throughout California and the U.S., and advocates on behalf of indigent and ethnic minority communities. Rodrigo Torres edited this policy brief for the Central Coast Health Network (CCHN).
The author previously worked with several non-profit organizations in California assisting them with administrative and fiscal issues. Torres has served as the Executive Director of the California Hispanic Health Care Association and wrote state legislation (AB 1045/2002) that was signed into law by then Governor Gray Davis that was designed to bring doctors from Mexico to serve in rural, Spanish-speaking communities, and wrote the first legislation in the nation defining cultural and linguistic competency of health-care professionals in California. He also served as a member of The California Endowment’s CEO Task Force on Agricultural Worker Health 2001 that is referenced in this report. In 2006 he served as senior advisor to the Californians for Schwarzenegger campaign and developed and directed the Latino outreach and media issues. Schwarzenegger received, according to some media outlets, 39% of the Latino vote when it expected that he would receive no more than 25 at best.
In addition, Torres served as National Executive Director of the League of United Latin American Citizens from 1979 to 1985. He was instrumental in the debate surrounding the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, and wrote many of the provisions of the legalization program in IRCA that legalized the status of more than 3 million undocumented workers in the U.S. Torres also was one of the first 100 counselors elected from the U.S. (2003-2005) by Mexican immigrant communities to represent them before the government of the Republic of Mexico in the Institute of Mexicans Living Abroad (IME) created by then President of Mexico Vicente Fox.
He has served as the Political Analyst for Univision National Network during the last three Presidential campaigns and is a regular contributor to Ultima Hora and Al Punto, national news programs for Univision. He has written many articles that have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Arizona Republic, Sacramento Bee, Albuquerque Journal and U.S. News & World Report, U.S. Today and he has been a guest on "Firing Line," "Crossfire," "CBS Morning News," "Phil Donohue," CNN, and Univision, Telemundo and TV Azteca Spanish-language networks.


Overview of Farm Worker Studies: 1990 – 2009

1. “California Results from the National Agricultural Survey 1990-91”, U.S. Department of Labor
The National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) is a survey that first was initiated by the U.S. Department of Labor as part of the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. Its original purpose was to collect data on farm workers in crop agriculture. There was the concern to assess, measure the turnover IRCA was supposed to have caused in the agricultural sector of the U.S. Agricultural producers were very concerned that there would be shortages of seasonal agricultural service (SAS) workers because the IRCA had legalized the status of millions of undocumented workers that had previously worked in agriculture.
The NAWS initially collected data on the SAS worker populations concerning demographics, education, family size and household composition, access to health care, wages, and working conditions in farm jobs and participation in the U.S. labor force.
In 1990-91 1,844 personal interviews were conducted of California SAS workers in nine counties, Fresno, Kern, Kings, Imperial, Monterey, Sonoma, Tulare, Riverside and Yolo. Nationwide 2,000 SAS workers are interviewed randomly with 40% of all SAS workers being from California. The total number of interviews in 1990-91 nationwide was 4, 739. NAWS regional coordinators contacted selected employers, explained the purpose of the survey and secured their permission to come on-site to interview workers.
The following are some of the highlights of the conditions NAWS found of SAS workers (farm workers) in California in 1990-91:
Birthplace and Employment Eligibility

  • Nine out of ten California SAS workers are foreign born. Two-thirds have been in the U.S. longer than eight years.

  • One in ten of the workers interviewed are ineligible on employment in the U.S.

  • 91% of all California SAS workers are legally eligible to work in the U.S.

  • Nearly two of every three SAS workers legalized their status under the IRCA SAW program.

Demographics, Family and Household Composition

  • Three of five California SAS workers are less than 35 years old.

  • Three-fourths are men.

  • Two-thirds are married, and almost as many (60%) are parents.

  • Nine out of ten are Hispanic (82% Mexicans, 7% Mexican-American and 2% other Hispanics).

  • Six of ten California SAS workers reside with a spouse, child, or parent while employed in farm work.

Schooling, Literacy, and English Skills

  • Most (71%) California SAS workers have completed eight or fewer years of formal education.

  • Spanish is the primary language for nine of ten (88%) California SAS workers.

  • 38% say they speak English a “little”, 8% “some”, and 11% say they speak it well.

  • One out of ten can speak English well: 3% are native English speakers, and 7% are bilingual.

  • Fewer than one in seven (14%) can read English well.

  • Recent arrivals also tend to have higher educational levels than those who have been here longer.

  • One-third of California SAS workers have tried to improve their skills by taking an adult education class, most commonly to learn English.

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