Sunday, August 24, 2008

Lawsuit highlights conflicted views on "guest workers"

COURTLAND — On the eve of a weekend farm labor convention starring Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Salvador Gonzalez was hit with the worst mess of his career.

In late July, after months of preparation, the labor contractor brought 180 workers from the Mexican state of Colima to pick pears, apples and wine grapes in the farms of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. After a month, 24 of those legal guest workers sued him in federal court, accusing Gonzalez's family business of broken wage promises, filthy living conditions and other mistreatment.

"If I knew something like this was going to happen getting into this, I never would have done it," said Gonzalez, acknowledging some "wear and tear" at his facilities but denying he broke labor laws.

The incident marred Gonzalez's first experiment with the nation's guest worker program and was added to the United Farm Workers of America's litany of concerns about the seasonal work sponsorships that President Bush has sought to expand.

Known for union leader Cesar Chavez's battles against the abuses of the old "bracero" guest worker program, which was abolished in 1964, the UFW has stood behind the Colima workers, referring them to the lawyers who filed the lawsuit on Wednesday night.

But the influential labor union isn't staunchly against guest workers any more. It has changed its stance to reflect the times and adjusted its perspective on the temporary work visas that bring more than Advertisement30,000 nonimmigrant farm workers to the United States each year.

At its annual convention in Fresno this weekend, featuring Clinton, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and national labor leaders, the UFW will present its own visiting workers plan on the union's carefully monitored terms.

But whether that plan takes hold in California may depend on cooperation from business owners such as Gonzalez.

"It takes two to tango," said Erik Nicholson, head of the UFW's pilot guest worker program.

Many of those growers are already so frustrated with the existing system, which requires employers to provide housing and food and prove that they are not taking work from locals, that they avoid it completely.

"That program is so complicated, so costly and so bureaucratic, that for farmers trying to do it themselves it's an absolute nightmare," said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League.

It's not clear whether they would have the patience to struggle through the proposed UFW version and its heightened work standards.

Of nearly a half million farm workers in California, 3,000 to 4,000 each year are legal guest workers, said Jack King, national affairs director for the California Farm Bureau.

About a third of those work for two big companies that have the resources to handle the legal hassles, including strict government wage requirements and potential liability for housing and employing the workers.

For smaller businesses, King said the seasonal, migratory and fluctuating nature of California agricultural work does not lend itself to the static requirements of seasonal visas, called H-2A, which tie visiting workers to a specific employer.

"We lack job stability," King said.

When they landed in southern Sacramento County from their home state of Colima last month, many of Gonzalez's workers said they were counting on regular work that would justify a six-month absence from their families in Mexico. Gonzalez and his representatives had met with Colima's governor and visited rural towns there, promising a worthwhile experience abroad. The lawsuit contends promoters said workers would earn $100 a day, six days a week at the California minimum of $9.72 an hour for H-2A workers.

Instead, because of unexpected off time without pay, many found themselves forced to spend some days idly waiting at their temporary lodgings, located in tiny towns in the Delta region.

Wedged between a packing plant and a vast pear grove, Gonzalez's remote Courtland labor camp features two rooms, each with a row of about 17 small beds stacked with clothes, mementos and unfinished love letters to partners back home.

In another camp in Clarksburg, where workers filed the lawsuit, the state Department of Housing and Community Development discovered 11 violations Thursday, including cracked and soiled facilities and beds that were less than 30 inches from each other — a health hazard, said Ronald Javor of the department's code enforcement wing.

Violations such as those, along with allegations of breach of pay agreements, spurred the lawsuit.

"An employer is given an opportunity to bring in a controllable group of workers and subject them to mistreatment that helps his bottom line," said lawyer Cynthia Rice of California Rural Legal Assistance, which is representing the workers.

Ascension Baltazar Sanchez, living in the Courtland camp, did not participate in the suit and said his living arrangements were not as bad as others.

"The dormitories could be a little better, but the food's good," Sanchez said.

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