For as long as Ralph Ramos can recall, farm labor has been part of his life.
His father, Miguel, came to the United States in 1953 under the bracero program, a 22-year campaign of recruiting Mexican field laborers that started during World War II. The elder Ramos worked his way up from field hand to an administrative position, and in 1976 took out his farm labor contractor's license.
Ralph Ramos, a recently elected trustee of the school board of the Hueneme Elementary School District, bought his father's business in 1986 and has been putting people to work ever since.
From where he sits, in a threadbare office at the end of a residential street in Oxnard, Ramos says he can see all sides of the push to reform the labor contractor system.
But he says the debate is lost on farmers, who succeed or fail based on the bottom line.
"With the direct-hire system, over time the growers' costs would run through the roof," said the 36-year-old Ventura County native. "We all operate under very thin profit margins. The marketplace is very unforgiving and it definitely punishes inefficiency."
Ramos' company, Pacific Labor Services Inc., mostly works with longtime customers. It finds jobs for about 65 employees a week, most of whom walk into his Oxnard office looking for work. Turnover is high and work is irregular.
Because of cost constraints, Ramos says he supplies his employees with the legal minimum. They get no health benefits, no sick pay and no paid vacation.
"For the things that I cannot do or cannot provide, it is because the paying customer doesn't want to pay for it," Ramos says. "If the system would allow for more, we could provide more."
Ramos says the labor contractors he knows are honest, hard-working businessmen. But he concedes that some are not fully aware of all of the laws regulating the industry.
"Ignorance of the law is no defense," he says, "but that's just the way it happens sometimes."
A study released last week by the Davis-based California Institute for Rural Studies reported serious flaws in labor contractor registration, licensing and tax reporting. The report concluded that government regulators are virtually powerless to stop abuses in the fields.
Ramos says he has been monitoring efforts by state lawmakers to pass legislation that would hold growers directly responsible for abuses committed by contractors.
"If it were to pass, there would have to be a major rethink of how labor is provided to agriculture," Ramos said. "We would see an end to the labor contractor system as it exists today."
While reform may be on the horizon, and Ramos agrees that some is needed, he is wary of how much is necessary and how soon it will come. He notes that the issue of poor working conditions in the fields has been debated for decades.
But in the end, he sees the labor contractor system as a permanent fixture of the American workplace.
"It's a trend nationwide, even outside of agriculture, to reverse the direct-hire process," Ramos says. "I think some people are going to be short-changed if that trend continues."