The hunt for work begins while the barrio is still dark. Drawn by the hope of a day's pay, farm workers collect in a poor pocket of Oxnard hours before first light bleeds into the sky.
This is low tide in the agricultural cycle, the off-season when field hands jam the streets to scrape the bottom of a shrinking job pool.
They gather in alleys and on street corners, in public parks and church parking lots, huddled against a stubborn night chill, hoping to squeeze a few hours of work out of this stingy job market.
For the working poor, the Oxnard barrio is the hiring hub of Ventura County, a poverty-choked place where workers are funneled to fields in Moorpark and Saticoy and Camarillo.
Hundreds of field workers have joined the hunt by the time the labor contractors arrive.
In their dented pickups and tired old vans, the contractors are the mightiest men in the barrio for the moment.
They are the middlemen hired by growers to round up workers and deliver them to the fields; labor brokers with a reputation, if not a history, of mistreating their clients.
At the center of a swarm of job seekers, a foreman pulls out a sheet of paper and starts crossing off names. He needs pepper pickers who are fast and who will fill their plastic buckets without complaint.
A 22-year-old field hand, employed exclusively by contractors since arriving from a dried-up Mexican village six years ago, learns that he has been bumped for failing to fill enough buckets to make minimum wage the day before.
"How can that be?" he protests. "You set the price. You set it so low that it is impossible to make enough."
Arguing does him no good. He steps back and others step forward, eager to take his place.
"What about us?" two women ask, their eyes pleading and staring directly into the contractor's. The foreman sizes them up, then directs them to the rear of a white pickup already crammed with workers.
And then the jobs are gone. Engines roar to life and the barrio empties.
"This is like slavery," says the rejected laborer, afraid to give his name for fear of never working again. "They control the jobs. They decide who eats and who goes hungry."
For a growing number of farm workers, this is the dark side of Ventura County's $722-million annual harvest.
Labor contractors--not any single grower--have become the county's leading agricultural employer.
No one is sure exactly how many there are, but 44 are licensed with the state and more wield power without official state blessing. In recent years they have usurped both the United Farm Workers union and the county's top growers as the true lords of the fields in Ventura County.
Growers say that labor contractors have become an indispensable part of farm work, offering farm owners a competitive edge because they can deliver a labor force more cheaply than anyone else.
"Nobody's out there with a whip," says Woody Hansen, owner of Oxnard-based Seaboard Produce, which switched entirely to a contract work force in the mid-1980s. "The key is that we need to have dependable and honest farm labor contractors."
Reversal of Fortune?
But farm workers and their advocates view the rise of the labor contractor as a dangerous trend that reverses any progress made by field workers over the past 30 years.
Most contractors pay their workers less than growers do and offer few benefits and little job security. Some, despite repeated labor law violations, are allowed to operate with relative impunity, advocates contend.
In exchange for jobs, some workers say they are forced to hand over a cut of their wages or pay for rides to the fields by contractors looking to pad their profits. The going rate for a ride to work in Ventura County is $3.
Short-handled tools, outlawed two decades ago because they cause crippling back injuries, remain in the arsenal of a few contractors.
Many laborers say they have been made to stoop for long hours under a blistering sun for less than minimum wage and without the benefit of toilets or drinking water.
While government regulators, farm worker advocates and labor contractors argue about the extent of the problems, they agree that the labor contractor system is under fire and in line for reform.
But it is a tight-knit system, highly transient and nearly impossible to penetrate. Many workers are hired off the street, desperate for jobs and ignorant of laws designed to protect them. Some contractors maintain a shadowy existence, conducting business out of their pickup trucks and skipping often from one field to the next.
And it is a growing network--employing more than 4,000 county workers a month on the average--monitored by state and federal agencies stretched thin by shrinking budgets.
The state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), for example, has six inspectors responsible for ensuring worker safety in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. In addition to agriculture, they enforce a wide range of labor laws at construction sites, restaurants and a variety of other industries.
But even in that limited enforcement scheme, state records reveal that some areas get more attention than others.
Between February, 1992, and July of this year, inspectors handed out 214 citations and issued $109,000 in fines to growers and contractors in the three counties for a variety of field violations. Of those, only six citations totaling $4,000 in fines were issued in Ventura County.
A study released last week by the Davis-based California Institute for Rural Studies found serious flaws in labor contractor registration, licensing and tax reporting. The report--based on interviews with 180 contractors, 92 laborers and 30 growers--concluded that government regulators were powerless to crack down on the industry.
State and federal officials concede that scores of violations have gone unpunished and uncorrected. They say limited resources, combined with the elusiveness of labor contractors, make the industry a tough one to purge.
"You seem to have some of the best and worst examples out there," state Labor Commissioner Victoria Bradshaw said of Ventura County. "There is a severe underemployment problem and that opens the door to a host of other problems."
Even legitimate, well-established contractors say they are finding it increasingly difficult to compete against renegade firms willing to cheat workers to cut costs.
Ralph De Leon, 55, is president of a Santa Paula-based contracting company that pays above minimum wage, provides health benefits and offers steady employment.
He said newer or lesser-known contractors would be hard-pressed to provide those things. In fact, De Leon said skyrocketing labor costs and burdensome government regulations are driving many contractors underground.
"I believe that many times people are trying to survive, and in order to survive they cheat people," he said. "The picture is not really as bleak as people have shown. But there are a few contractors who are violating the law simply because they can get away with it."
A new statewide effort to crack down on labor violations already has helped rein in unscrupulous contractors, officials maintain. The joint enforcement and educational program, started late last year partly in response to criticism that the state's agriculture industry was riddled with abuses, has issued more than 200 citations and assessed more than $3 million in fines.
Despite those boasts, farm worker advocates blast the effort as a public relations ploy designed to polish the state's tarnished image and too weak to scare contractors into compliance.
"There has been a collapse of public enforcement in agriculture in the past dozen years," said Mark Schacht, a legislative lobbyist for California Rural Legal Assistance in Sacramento. The statewide poverty law firm represents farm workers for free.
"The administration has fallen asleep at the switch and has let this underground economy flourish," Schacht said. "The fact of the matter is they are making cameo appearances from one end of the state to the other and it is still business as usual out there."
The Decline of Unions
State and federal lawmakers are pushing legislation to purify the labor contractor system. They say that short of meaningful reform, there is little hope of ever ending abuses in the field.
"For over a decade, the state of California and the federal government have refused to enforce laws in the fields," said Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento), who has authored a bill that would hold growers responsible for abuses committed by contractors. "That is the shame, the irony and the sin of the way America has treated farm workers."
Once, the vast majority of farm workers were hired directly by growers.
But over the past decade, an increasing number of farm operations have employed independent contractors to escape the headache and the liability of putting the county's farm labor force to work. In Ventura County, the number of farm workers employed by labor contractors has doubled in the past decade.
That rise can be attributed in part to the decline of a unionized work force, growers and labor organizers agree.
In the 1970s, the United Farm Workers union had 100,000 members, including about 4,000 in Ventura County, under collective bargaining agreements that provided farm workers decent wages, medical insurance and other benefits on a par with workers in other industries. Union contracts also prohibited growers from using labor contractors.
But UFW influence has eroded since then, leaving the union with only about 10,000 members nationwide today and only a few hundred in this county. The absence of union contracts allowed growers to gut their work crews and rely on contractors to provide laborers for the harvest, UFW officials contend.
"This is a way for growers to wash their hands of the workers," said Victor Palafox, a UFW representative in Oxnard. "The workers were dying of hunger and needed jobs. For them, there was no other way."
The shift from a system where growers hired workers directly to one where they hired labor contractors to find workers for them first became apparent in the county's citrus industry, according to a report issued by the California Institute for Rural Studies.
Today, all but two of the county's citrus farming operations use contractors' workers exclusively to harvest their crops, according to the report.
"Through the years we have used less and less of our own workers to harvest our fruit," said Chris Taylor, president of the Ventura County Farm Bureau and vice president of farming for Limoneira Co., which grows about 4,000 acres of citrus and avocados countywide.
Taylor said that up until 1985, the old Limoneira Co. hired 100% of its own workers. Today, he said, about 75% of the company's harvesting crews are made up of contract laborers. Taylor said the absence of union contracts and the ability to save money have led the company to use more and more contractors.
"The reality is that the agriculture businesses in California cannot afford to directly hire workers and provide all of the benefits that go with that," Taylor explained. "It's not washing our hands of the process, it just makes good business sense."
According to state records, in addition to the 44 licensed labor contractors doing business in Ventura County, there are about 1,000 licensed contractors statewide.
Farm worker advocates estimate that anywhere from one-third to one-half of California's field hands find work through labor contractors, although grower representatives say they believe the numbers to be much lower.
Hired on a crop-by-crop basis, contractors are responsible for paying wages, providing unemployment and workers' compensation insurance and supplying toilets, drinking water and other provisions in the fields.
They are required to register with federal, state and county agencies. In California, contractors must pass written exams and post $10,000 bonds.
"We are one of the most regulated businesses that you will find anywhere in the United States," De Leon said.
Most of Ventura County's contractors are legitimate, law-abiding business owners who pay above minimum wage and maintain a steady work force, growers and labor contractors maintain. Many contractors were farm workers themselves, poor laborers who gathered the courage and resources to start their own companies.
Ventura-based contractor Rafael Lira got his license two years ago after more than 20 years of working as a foreman and field hand for a number of contractors. He manages crews of 35 to 100 laborers who work citrus in Ventura, Somis and Fillmore.
"It's better if you work for yourself," said Lira, who came to this country in 1973 from the Mexican state of Guanajuato. "You work more, but you're able to earn more for yourself and your family to get ahead."
The farm labor contractor can appear as one of a variety of people to the farm worker: the actual owner of the company; the mayordomo , a foreman employed by the contractor to round up and supervise work crews; the raitero who taxis workers to the fields; and even the coyote , paid to illegally transport farm workers across the border.
Perhaps the best example of the coyote in this county is 66-year-old Mauro Casares of Oxnard, who was sentenced late last year to 18 months in federal prison for smuggling hundreds of Mexican workers to the Somis flower ranch of Edwin M. Ives.
Ives, who was originally charged with enslaving workers, pleaded guilty last year to labor and immigration charges and agreed to pay $1.5 million in back wages, the stiffest fine ever in a U.S. immigration case. Ives was sentenced last week to three years in prison.
Fed by an inexhaustible supply of labor from south of the border, the state's farm work force has become bloated.
Too many workers for too few jobs has resulted in a free fall in wages and created an environment where laborers endure poor conditions in return for a day's pay, farm worker advocates say.
As a result, thousands of farm workers end up working for contractors who cheat them out of their pay and cheat the government out of tax deductions, workers and their advocates say. And often when wage claims and legal judgments are brought against contractors, they dip into bankruptcy, only to emerge as new companies.
"The labor contractors know the market and they are pushing it to the max," said Lee Pliscou, directing attorney for the Oxnard office of California Rural Legal Assistance. "The workers themselves have become a commodity to be bought and sold and bargained for. And they are not going to complain because they are in a position where any job is better than no job at all."
Pliscou said the CRLA has documented dozens of complaints against contractors over the past three years, hard evidence that the system needs to be overhauled.
But Robert P. Roy, general counsel for the Ventura County Agriculture Assn., said he believes there is not a lack of enforcement on county farmland and that most agricultural employers are obeying the law.
"You're going to find some abuses from time to time," Roy said, "but I think they happen less frequently here than anywhere in the state."
However, many of those who have worked the fields in Ventura County have a different view, including Maria Echaveste, a former Oxnard field hand who was recently appointed administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor's wage and hour division.
Echaveste, appointed to the post earlier this year by President Clinton, performed stoop labor for many years on the farmland that rolls like a giant green blanket across the county.
"The facts speak for themselves," Echaveste said. "Things have not improved in the last 12 to 15 years. That suggests that changes need to be made."
The Vehicle for Change
For state and federal officials, the vehicle for change is a statewide program called TIPP.
The Targeted Industries Partnership Program was born in November of last year out of realization that enforcement agencies had few investigators, little money and a reputation for being unable or unwilling to crack down on violations of labor laws designed to protect farm workers.
TIPP was created to coordinate and strengthen the efforts of state and federal agencies responsible for enforcing labor law. The two-year pilot project, funded at $884,000 for the first year, has generated hundreds of citations and nearly $4 million in fines.
"We are trying to send a signal that we intend to have strong enforcement of labor standards," Echaveste said. "This is a high-profile effort to raise the level of voluntary compliance because we are never going to have enough resources to investigate every complaint."
Major sweeps have been conducted in Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Fresno, Imperial, Riverside, Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. Smaller sweeps have been done in San Diego, Orange and Kern counties.
As part of the statewide effort, TIPP investigator David Dorame has been assigned to Santa Maria where investigators uncovered a glut of violations.
Dorame is a one-man enforcement squad. He inspects the buses and vans that transport fieldworkers to ensure the vehicles are safe and insured. Using a sixth sense he has honed during his 16-year career, he swoops into fields, flashing his badge and emptying one citation book after another.
On one stop near San Luis Obispo, he cited the foreman of a labor contractor who put his 16-year-old son to work. At another, he shut down an illegal sharecropping operation where two girls, 11 and 15, were working 12 hours a day picking snow peas. The field had no toilets and no drinking water.
For Dorame, a veteran investigator usually stationed in the Imperial Valley, the statewide TIPP effort is paying dividends.
"I don't know what's going to happen with TIPP," Dorame said. "I'm not a politician, all I know is that we've got the bad guys running scared here."
But TIPP has drawn the wrath of farm worker advocates who have little confidence in the program.
The CRLA office in Oxnard twice has called TIPP's toll-free hot line to report violations. One call went unanswered for several weeks and by the time an inspection was done, a suspected unlicensed labor contractor had vanished.
The status of the second complaint, lodged late last month, remains unknown. CRLA attorney Eileen McCarthy said she called TIPP to report that a contractor had wrongfully fired a worker who refused to drive a tractor with bad brakes.
Several phone calls and more than a week later, McCarthy said she only knows that the complaint was received but can't find out whether it was investigated.
"I'm concerned that evidence won't be preserved. I'm concerned that another worker could be driving an unsafe tractor," McCarthy said.
CRLA has other concerns as well. Mark Schacht, CRLA's legislative lobbyist in Sacramento, said labor contractors represent a legal buffer to growers who want to harvest their crops but disclaim any responsibility for wrongdoing on their property.
State and federal officials need to go after people higher up the chain if they are sincere about industry reform, Schacht said.
"People will argue that TIPP is a good thing, that it is better than nothing," Schacht said. "But it isn't better than nothing if what it does is provide legal cover to an administration and grower community trying to prevent more fundamental change."
For CRLA and other advocates, the vehicle for change is a once-defeated Assembly bill that would make farmers strictly liable for violations of state farm labor laws even if they use farm labor contractors as middlemen.
The bill, authored by Isenberg, was approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee in May and is scheduled to go before the full Assembly early next year. A similar Isenberg bill died on the Assembly floor last year.
"I know that enforcement comes and goes with the tide," Isenberg said in an interview. "Why not go back to a fundamental American principal that says you're responsible for what happens on your own property?"
Ventura County farm workers earlier this month delivered a petition signed by 417 laborers to the Camarillo office of Assemblyman Nao Takasugi (R-Oxnard) urging his support of the bill. But Takasugi says he is not likely to vote for the bill.
"If there are abuses in the system, I think the responsible parties should be taken to task," Takasugi said. "But I personally feel that agricultural operations can't be held to answer for abuses committed by labor contractors."
The bill also is strongly opposed by farming groups, which argue it would place an unreasonable burden on growers and impose liability for contractor actions over which growers have no control.
Some critics of the legislation go further, accusing its author and supporters of trying to spark a return of organized field labor.
"The political agenda here is to destroy the farm labor contractor system," said Robert Roy, the agriculture association lawyer. "They want to go back to a direct hire system which can be more easily organized by the UFW."
Growers also contend that the bill is intended to force them to keep workers on the payroll and give them the same benefits as year-round employees.
"Really, there would be no reason to go through a farm labor contractor. At that point, you're better off hiring your own people," said Chris Taylor, the farm bureau president. "There are so few competitive edges left, that would serve to drive farmers out of business."
But farm workers say the competition to provide laborers at the lowest price exacts its greatest toll on those who earn a living gathering the harvest.
Maria Cristina Orozco, 39, said she was badly hurt four years ago when she was ordered to jump off a tractor by a driver in too much of a hurry to stop and allow workers to climb off.
"There is so much injustice that happens to us," said the field hand, who has been disabled and unemployed ever since. "The growers are not ignorant of what is happening to us. They need to be held accountable."
Orozco worked for half a dozen contractors over the past two decades, including a stint as a field boss. As a supervisor, she said, she was ordered to cheat laborers by erasing hours on their time cards or paying workers in cash and withholding deductions that made it into the pocket of the contractor instead of going to the government.
She quit her management position, unable to stomach her orders, only to return to a labor system where she was paid less than minimum wage, where bathrooms were filthy, if they were provided at all, and where beer and sexual favors and other bribes were demanded in exchange for work.
She now spends much of her time making other laborers aware of abuses in the system.
"I lived for years in ignorance and fear," she told a group of men at an Oxnard boarding home recently. "It's a problem that we have. We're worried that we will lose our jobs, that they will run us off if we speak the truth."
Farm labor contractors have become VEntura County's leading agricultural employer, putting more than 4,000 field hands to work in an average month. Over the past decade, growers have increasingly relied on contractors to round up workers and deliver then to the fields.
At a Glance
* Farm operations: 2,120
* Agricultural land: 328,960 acres
* Crop value: $722 million
*Top five crops:
Lemons: $166 million
Strawberries: $101 million
Celery: $79 million
Nursery stock: $74 million
Valencia oranges: $41 million * Farm workers:
Peak season; 25,000
Low season; 14,000 * Farm labor contractors: 44 locensed by state, 36 registered with county.
* Farm Labor
Average annual pay Direct hire: Farm labor contractor $9,102: $6,829
* Average hourly pay: Direct hire: Farm labor contractor $5.57: $5.23
* Average duration of job: Direct hire: Farm labor contractor 7.1 months: 5.8 months Cources: California Institure for Rural Studies, Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner and the Ventura Committee on Women in Agricutlure.