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Crop Pickers Get Partial Back Pay, Head Home : Economy: Recession also causing despair for migrant workers as hard-pressed farmers and contractors fail to pay their laborers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

About 60 Mexican migrant workers involved in a three-month wage dispute at a Carlsbad tomato farm collected partial back wages Monday and headed home for the holidays--on a bus provided by the Mexican government.

The Mexican consulate, state labor officials and migrant advocates became involved in the case in recent months after workers at the Carlsbad farm of Ruben Lopez complained that they had not been paid since September.

The tomato farm is just one example of the despair that economic recession is sowing among migrant workers and day laborers who live in the squatters camps of North San Diego County, according to those helping the migrant workers recover their back wages.

Wage claims have reached unprecedented levels in recent months as hard-pressed farmers and contractors fail to pay their laborers, legal aid lawyers say. Carlos Maldonado of California Rural Legal Assistance says the number of claims received by his office is about 25% over normal.

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“The bosses are not paying because they aren’t getting paid either,” Maldonado said.

In the case of the Carlsbad farm, Lopez said he cannot pay his men because a broker owes him money.

But he agreed last week to give $15,000 to state labor officials as a partial payment. On Monday, the state used the money to pay 20% of the back wages to the laborers, mostly Mixtec Indians from the Oaxaca region of Mexico who have worked at the farm for several years.

The state has received 99 wage claims in the case, according to state senior deputy Labor Commissioner Phil Galvez. Labor activists claim that workers are still owed about $75,000.

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“It was very sad,” said Algimiro Morales, head of Mixtec Popular Civic Committee. He said the migrant workers are accustomed to returning home for the holidays with money and gifts for their families. “It was very little money that they received today. Checks for $100, $150, that’s all.”

Of Lopez, Morales said: “The bosses at this farm have been very good people. There has not been malice here, but there has been a bit of bad faith in having the men continue working when there wasn’t money to pay them.”

Nonetheless, state officials and others described Lopez as an honest grower who has maintained good relations with employees.

“Mr. Lopez has been very cooperative through this whole thing,” Galvez said. “If anybody feels bad about this, it’s him.”

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The workers are not antagonistic toward Lopez, and many continued working on the tomato crop without pay because they trusted him to come up with the money eventually, said Roger Miller, regional manager of the state Division of Labor Standards.

State labor officials estimated that there has been a 15% rise in wage claims at their office in the past six months. And they said there is little doubt about the cause.

“I can tell from my experience, we know when the economy is going bad” because of the increase in wage claims by agricultural workers, Galvez said. “It’s easier to take advantage of them. Many of them are afraid to use the system. Often they are unaware of the system.”

Lopez’s attorney, Rachel Aragon of San Diego, said her client is also a victim.

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The grower has been trying for several months to collect a “substantial” debt from a broker who sold his latest crop, but paid Lopez only a small amount of what was owed, Aragon said.

“Every penny (Lopez) has got he has given to the workers,” Aragon said. “Certainly, if he collects the money he will honor all of his debts, and the laborers would come first. . . . He’s never done business like this. That’s not the kind of person he is.”

Aragon said she may pursue legal action against the broker. She would not specify how much the broker owes Lopez. She said she believes total unpaid wages are less than the $90,000 claimed by Morales, but she said she does not know the exact amount.

State officials are still investigating the case and could pursue civil action against Lopez for violating state wage laws, officials said.

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On Monday, after collecting the checks at the state labor commissioner’s office and cashing them at a National City bank, the workers climbed back aboard the bus provided by the Mexican consulate and headed for the border.

The Mexican government has agreed to pay their way from Tijuana to Mexico City, and then to their hometowns in Oaxaca, according to Mexican Consul Marcela Merino.


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