As Common as Dirt

In the fields of California, wage theft is how agribusiness is done

Photographs by David Bacon
Photographs by David Bacon
This story won a 2015 James Beard Foundation Award for excellent writing in "Food Politics, Policy, and the Environment."
This story won a 2013 James Beard Foundation Award for excellence in writing in “Food Politics, Policy, and the Environment.”

One morning earlier this year, in the borderland town of Brawley, California, 75-year-old Ignacio Villalobos perched on a chair in his trailer, removed a plastic bag from the well of a rubber boot, and finished dressing for work. Dawn was still an hour away, and in the wan light of the kitchen, Villalobos took off his house sandals and pulled the bag over his right foot. He bunched it at the ankle, then slipped his foot into his boot.

“These shoes aren’t made for water,” he said, adding that morning dew and irrigation keep farm fields damp—even in the desert of the Imperial Valley where he was working. Villalobos estimated that a pair of decent used boots would run him $30, almost half a day’s wages; the bags were free.

Villalobos moved quietly, trying to keep from waking his grown nephew, Roberto, who was sleeping in the back bedroom of the trailer. For years, Villalobos and his partner, Juana, had raised Roberto, whom they had taken in as an infant. Then, last year, Juana died after battling diabetes and heart disease, leaving the two men on their own. Villalobos tied his boot before repeating the process with his left foot and grabbed a bag of bologna sandwiches he had made that morning. By 6:15 A.M. he was out the door.

At 6:30, Villalobos was sitting in a parking lot on the east side of town, watching the sunrise from his rusted Ford Blazer. He was the first to arrive at the lot, an empty plain of gravel and sand ringed by a corrugated aluminum fence. Other workers began to arrive, waiting in their cars for the 7:30 bus that would take them to the fields. Most, Villalobos included, had U.S. citizenship (or legal permission to work) and a coveted position on a union crew, guaranteeing them steady work harvesting. But Villalobos had seen enough in nearly seven decades of field labor that he remained wary of any promise of job security. Showing up early was a preventive measure, intended to guarantee his spot cutting broccoli rabe and reduce the risk of losing a day’s wages.

In late March, Villalobos became a plaintiff in a wide-ranging labor-abuse suit against a former employer, Juan Muñoz Farm Labor Contractor. The company is one of several that lawyers say were hired by Calandri/SonRise Farms in 2009 and 2010 to harvest onions for its SonRise label, a brand sold across the U.S. and abroad. A second defendant, Maui Harvesting, faces claims from another plaintiff, Adalberto Gomez. Two women alleged to be operating as unlicensed farm-labor contractors are also named as defendants. The case alleges that while Gomez and Villalobos picked onions across the Coachella and Central valleys in California, the contractors routinely altered payment documents to undercount hours worked; failed to pay the state’s minimum wage of $8 an hour or overtime; failed to provide safe or sanitary working conditions; and housed the workers in unsafe and unsanitary living quarters. Significantly, Calandri/SonRise Farms was also named as a defendant in the suit, meaning it was not absolved of responsibility because it had outsourced its harvesting work.

Compared with other recent tales of American farmworkers, Villalobos and Gomez might consider themselves lucky. In Florida, tomato pickers have been locked in box trucks under the watch of armed guards; in North Carolina, pregnant workers have been exposed to pesticides during harvest and birthed babies with missing limbs; in Michigan, children as young as six have been found laboring in blueberry groves. Those are marquee cases that garner national media, shining the spotlight on the most egregious abuses. In relative terms, suits like Villalobos are mundane, but they are also ubiquitous, filed with a frequency that suggests the most pervasive and insidious abuse faced by farmworkers is the kind Villalobos encountered: the blatant disregard of labor laws governing wages, safety, and health. This type of abuse is most typically seen in fields managed not by farmers but by farm-labor contractors, many of whom started out as farmworkers themselves.

Known in some circles as “custom harvesters,” farm-labor contractors offer produce growers a ready workforce, but they also give these growers the ability to distance themselves from the people who pick their crops. These contractors control the flow of money between farmer and worker as well as all the paperwork. They track hours worked, crops harvested, and wages paid and take responsibility for everything related to labor, from verifying immigration status to providing workers’ compensation. Contractors can be found in the fields of nearly every handpicked crop in the United States, organic or conventional: green beans in Florida, grapefruit in Texas, peppers in Georgia, greens in Colorado, and garlic in California.

Farm-labor contractors give American produce growers what companies like China’s Foxconn offer to Apple: a way to outsource a costly and complicated part of the business, often saving money in the process and creating a firewall between the brand and the working conditions under which its products are made. “The contractor system makes it very difficult to enforce wage and hour laws because the idea is that the grower says, ‘It’s not me, it’s him. It’s the contractor. I had nothing to do with this,’” says Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project of Florida Legal Services and a leading farm-labor advocate. The case by Villalobos and Gomez, their lawyers say, offers a textbook example of abuse within the contracting system.

Unlike most farm-labor cases filed each year, Villalobos is a “collective action” suit. This designation broadens the case beyond the named plaintiffs and opens the case to any worker who can prove he or she experienced the same treatment at the hands of the defendants between 2008 and 2011. “We’re expecting it will cover hundreds if not thousands of workers,” says Megan Beaman, an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, the nonprofit farmworker advocacy group that filed the suit in U.S. District Court. If the court finds in favor of Villalobos and Gomez on all counts, the award per client could reach tens of thousands of dollars. Multiplied across hundreds of workers, this could be enough to “deter other employers from creating those same conditions,” Beaman says. The case, in other words, isn’t just about claiming back wages for its plaintiffs but about challenging the broader culture of abuse in their workplace.

Although the case is limited to agricultural workers, other industries may be closely watching it. By naming the grower as a defendant, the case confronts one of the thorniest problems facing American workers: the rise of subcontracted labor and the question of who is responsible when abuse occurs. “If you think about the jobs we can’t outsource and will stay here, that’s where you see a lot of subcontracting going on,” says Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project, a policy advocacy group. Subcontracting has sprawled into other low-wage jobs in construction, janitorial, security, health-care, housekeeping, and warehouse industries, often at name-brand companies like Amazon and Wal-Mart. “It’s kind of like Whac-A-Mole. If you go after the smaller-level contractors, they just pop up again on another site,” says Ruckelshaus. “You have to go up to the next level—or the level above—to make the patterns change.”

Contracting has been a part of American agriculture for the past century, performing what agribusinesses say are crucial services. For starters, contractors give farmers a hassle-free way to adjust the size of their workforce (and payroll) by season, letting them expand during harvest and shrink once it’s done. What’s more, says Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, “farmers are good at growing crops and marketing produce. All the legalities are not their area of expertise.” Gasperini’s group, which advocates for the country’s largest growers, sees contractors as a natural solution to farmers’ skill gap. “Hiring a contractor,” he says, “it’s not different than having an accountant to manage the portion that you’re not an expert in.”

Back in Brawley, Villalobos saw it differently. Tapping his finger emphatically on his kitchen table, he said, “A contractor is the same as a thief on the corner of any street.” He leaned across the table, eyes sharp beneath a deeply lined forehead, then relaxed into a shrug: “Who protects the worker? Who enforces the law?”

Villalobos was born in McAllen, Texas, deep in the state’s southernmost reaches, during the final throes of the Great Depression in 1937. The border was more fluid then, and he remembers his mother as being born in Hidalgo or Reynosa—a pair of cities, American and Mexican respectively, south of McAllen—and his father as being from Texas. The family migrated from cotton fields to grape vineyards to fruit orchards, following seasonal work from Texas to California and scraping together a living however they could. Villalobos recalls sleeping in barn stalls while picking cotton; at one point his father built a hut for the family using scrap wood from a construction job. As a small boy, Villalobos worked alongside his parents and didn’t attend school until he was 11. He only studied for four years, before leaving to go back to the fields.