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Illegal Labor in Strawberry Fields

By Staff Writer Alyssa Karbel '20

· Alyssa Karbel

During the 1960s, most individuals who followed California’s agriculture industry believed that the state would no longer employ any migrant farm workers by the 1970s. They were wrong. Today, migrants constitute a large portion of California’s agricultural work force, and depending on the crop, anywhere from thirty to sixty percent of these migrants are “illegal.”

So, what happened?

First, some background on California’s agricultural industry, specifically that of its strawberry crop. In the early 1950s, California was responsible for one third of the United States’ strawberry crop. Now, the state accounts for eighty percent of strawberries grown in the U.S. and almost twenty-five percent of the world’s commercial strawberries. While California has lost more than seven million acres of fertile farmland since 1964, the land acreage in California dedicated to growing strawberries has increased sevenfold  over the past twenty years. With this rapid expansion in a very labor-intensive row crop, it makes sense that there would be some kind of pressure on the industry’s labor force.

Essentially, illegal immigrants’ willingness to work long hours for extremely low (often illegal) wages has helped sustain California’s agricultural production. Ironically, illegal immigrants, who are frequently reviled and depicted as welfare cheats, effectively subsidize the most important sub-sector of the Californian agriculture economy.

Strawberry crops are one of the most profitable row crops, but they are also one of the riskiest. The fruits can be attacked by a number of pests, and weather patterns largely determine the success of harvests. With a long list of procedures required for ideal strawberry production, the only cost over which a grower can exert any real control is that of labor. With labor costs making fifty to seventy percent of the total costs in strawberry production, cutting labor costs can mean the difference between a profit and a loss for the farm. One of the easiest ways to reduce labor costs is to pay workers “under the table.” Paying an “invisible worker” in cash lowers the price of labor by more than twenty percent, ignoring overtime regulations cuts those costs by fifty percent, and paying less than minimum wage brings the greatest savings of all.

Employing illegal immigrants is so cost-efficient for farms that it is actually chosen over mechanization. According to one labor expert, instead of witnessing the mechanization of California agriculture, we are witnessing its “Mexicanization.” Despite the horrible working conditions, there is an oversupply of people hoping to pick strawberries. Migrants, especially illegal immigrants, care most about the long-term availability of work, not necessarily the pay scale. As migrants continue to cross California’s borders, the supply of available workers continues to increase and wages paid continue to go down. Essentially, the high supply of migrant workers and the under-the-table employment culture give agricultural employers leverage; though the workers technically accept low wages by their own volition, the employer-employee relationship is still exploitative. Labor conditions and standards would be much higher if agricultural employers hired American workers as opposed to vulnerable, impoverished, and “illegal” foreigners who are invisible to the law.  

Due to this large supply of migrants, California growers are able to offer wages that discourage American citizens from seeking farm work. Although the wages offered at harvest would place a family below poverty level in the United States, they were up to ten times higher than the wages Mexican peasants could receive in their native villages. This phenomenon developed a system in which the cheap labor of Mexican migrants subsidized Californian agriculture by making the cost of inputs go down.

Turnover rates are extremely high in the strawberry industry due to the labor’s grueling nature, but it is unlikely that there will be any shortage of potential migrants in the foreseeable future. Now constituting 30 million, the rural population of Mexico has tripled since the 1940s. It is likely that many of these rural workers will migrate to California, at least for a period of time, for the opportunity of higher wages.

According to Philip L. Martin, a former member of the Commission on Agricultural Labor “we have essentially privatized the immigration policy of this country.” As long as we tolerate the employment of illegal immigrants in agriculture, American citizens will continue to quit farm labor for better jobs and illegal immigrants will continue to arrive to replace them.

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