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Appealing to Agricultural Workers Where They Live

Times Staff Writer

Gildardo Garcia knows farm labor. He says he worked 12-hour days for more than 18 months in the fields of North San Diego County, residing largely in crude outdoor dwellings with only a thin sheet of plastic protecting him from the elements.

His description of working and living conditions is typical of those given by undocumented farm workers in the area, and Garcia says he’s happy to be away from it all.

Newly legalized under the agricultural-worker amnesty provisions of the 1986 immigration law, Garcia has left the fields and is now working the early-morning shift in a taco shop in Carlsbad, where he also resides in a shared apartment.

“The restaurant is a lot easier than working in the fields,” conceded Garcia, a soft-spoken 21-year-old from the Mexican interior state of Oaxaca. “At least I don’t have to work from dawn to dusk, stooping down, picking strawberries or tomatoes, always listening to the patron (boss) yelling at us.”

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Garcia’s decision to switch professions illustrates an oft-mentioned fear among Western growers: that newly legalized workers may abandon the farms en masse in search of relatively easier and better-paying jobs in the cities.

A Dependent Industry

Such a shift, industry spokesmen say, could create a shortage of workers in California’s $15-billion-dollar agricultural industry, which has long been dependent on undocumented labor.

While some have labeled the prospective labor shortage illusory, Singh Farms, a major San Diego agricultural concern based in Oceanside, has taken the rather extraordinary step of proposing to build a 352-bed labor camp in rural Bonsall--a facility the grower says is designed to avert a future dearth of workers.

The plan, which was triggered by the immigration law, appears to be one of the largest such proposals in recent years in California. Singh Farms says it wants to sweeten the pot to entice newly legalized workers to remain with the company.

“We need a stable work force,” said Daniel Dreger, the company’s office manager and spokesman.

Dreger declined to put a price tag on the proposed facility.

“With the amnesty program going the way it is, and with the probability that some workers may be moving into other areas of work . . . we wanted to provide an incentive.”

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Farm experts said they could recall no recent case statewide in which a grower proposed building such extensive farm labor housing.

Farm labor camps, once prevalent in California, have generally declined in number since the demise in 1964 of the bracero program, the World War II-era labor-importation initiative. The program required farmers to pro vide the workers with housing--which often was assailed as deplorable. Growers cite increased costs and heightened government regulation for the drop-off in such camps.

“There are certainly very few (camps) being opened, and, if anything, they tend to close,” said Julie Stewart, housing issues manager for the California Department of Housing and Community Development, which licenses such labor camps.

Less than 25% of the up to 300,000 workers in California fields live in camps, according to an estimate by an official of the California Farm Bureau Federation, an industry group.

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Consequently, the Singh Farms proposal, still in its early stages, has attracted considerable interest.

The company, which farms about 700 acres in San Diego County, is proposing construction of two two-story residential buildings, housing a total of 44 sleeping rooms with eight bunks each. Other rooms would be used for dining, laundry, storage and bathrooms. The proposal is on file with the county Planning Department, which would issue the permit. A third building would be used for storage. A hearing is scheduled for March 4 before the county zoning administrator.

If the administrator grants a permit, said Singh spokesman Dreger, construction could begin soon after and the camp could be operating later this year.

“We want to make sure we have the employees available when we need them,” said Dreger, who spoke in a telephone interview but declined to meet with a reporter, as did Harry Singh, the company owner. “The agricultural industry is losing a lot of employees to different industries.”

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Fellow growers and others characterize Singh Farms’ effort as a progressive move that will partially alleviate the acute farm-worker housing problem in North County, where thousands of laborers squat in rough gullies, arroyos and canyons.

“We applaud the Singh plan,” said Bob L. Vice, a Valley Center nursery owner who is first vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, the industry group. “It’s sorely needed, not only in San Diego but in other areas. There just isn’t any housing for these fellows.”

The proposal also received a hearty endorsement from planners in Bonsall, an unincorporated area near the Oceanside city limits, where the facility is to be built. They backed the plan despite several complaints from residents about the potential for increased crime, traffic and clutter.

“I think it’s a marvelous idea,” said Dominick J. Savoca, who reviewed the proposal for the Bonsall Sponsor Planning Group, an advisory board that voted to support the plan. “They (Singh Farms) want to protect their good workers.”

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Others, noting the longtime exploitation of farm workers in California, have been less enthusiastic.

“There’s a possibility that the growers had a sudden pang of conscience, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it,” said Mary Lopez, who directs the immigration program for the Martin Luther King Farm Worker Fund, an advocacy group affiliated with the United Farm Workers of America in Keene, Calif.

Lopez speculated that the company may be interested in eventually importing so-called “guest workers,” who can be brought into the United States legally if growers can demonstrate a shortage of legal workers.

Though not widely used in California, U.S. immigration authorities have promoted use of the guest-worker program, which is officially known as the H-2 or H-2a initiative. However, the program, like the bracero initiative, requires that farmers provide housing.

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Exploitation Cited

Spokesman Dreger said the Singh camp is designed to retain existing workers, not to import guest workers. Farm-worker advocates have criticized the guest-worker program as exploitative and unfair to laborers already in the United States.

Apart from her wariness about guest workers, Lopez also disputed the central notion behind the camp proposal: that new-found legal status is likely to drive workers away from the fields. Only bad working conditions can do that, she said.

“If the employers give them decent wages and benefits they will not leave the farm,” Lopez said. “Generally speaking, most farm workers prefer to be working outdoors. . . . When farmers say, ‘They’re going to abandon the farm!’ I say the answer is, ‘Give them a decent wage!’ Instead, they cut wages.”

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Indeed, several newly legalized farm workers interviewed recently in North County said they intended to return to field work--assuming conditions were good.

Reluctant to Change

Rogelio Taveres, 38, a father of five from the Mexican state of Jalisco, was looking for work at flower farms last week, along with his cousin Guadalupe Taveres, 22. Though both had been seeking jobs for two weeks without success, the elder Taveres seemed reluctant to take any other kind of employment, such as restaurant or hotel work.

“I know how to work with flowers very well,” said Taveres, who worked in the United States for five years as an undocumented alien, mostly for one farmer, while his family remained in Mexico. He obtained legal status last year. “I really don’t know how to find other kinds of work. My patron treated me all right. It’s the work I know.”

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Despite such sentiments, farmers statewide voice strong fears about mass defections of newly legalized field workers. The 1986 immigration law raised the possibility of legal status for those who had performed at least 90 days of farm work during a recent one-year period. To date, some 260,000 farm workers nationwide have applied for legal status under the law.

“There’s definitely apprehension out there,” said Michael Henry, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “Some have already left the farm to take jobs in the cities. . . . It’s placed the farmers throughout the state in a kind of quandary as to what to do.”

No Crunch This Year

Although scattered defections of farm workers have been reported, farmers say evidence of a severe labor crunch will probably not be evident in California until next year, after all eligible workers have applied for legal status. By then, new legal sanctions against farmers who knowingly hire illegal aliens will have kicked in, presumably deterring growers from hiring undocumented workers.

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However, farm experts say that even if shortages do appear, few growers are likely to resort to the costly alternative of building housing in an effort to attract workers. More likely, experts say, growers will attempt modest wage increases and increased mechanization, or will shift to less labor-intensive crops.

“Agricultural employers will attempt within their economic means to retain key employees,” said Roy Gabriel, who heads the extensive legalization effort launched by the California Farm Bureau Federation. “But in most cases, there is a narrow profit margin in farming, and in all cases growers simply can’t afford to raise wages or build labor camps.”

While Gildardo Garcia is happy working in the taco shop for now, he says he wouldn’t turn his back on prospective field jobs--particularly if wages were raised and amenities such as housing were included. At the taco shop, he says, he earns $4.25 an hour, plus about $7 a night in tips--compared to the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour that has typically been offered to farm workers.

“It wouldn’t bother me to go back to farm work--if the pay was good, there were some benefits, and the boss wasn’t always yelling and abusing the workers,” said Garcia, a bachelor who hasn’t been back to his home in Mexico since he crossed into the United States illegally in December, 1985.

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“If the conditions were right, I would work in agriculture again,” he said.


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