End bias against farmworkers


Farmworkers are the only hourly employees in the state who are not paid overtime after eight hours of labor in a standard 40-hour workweek, a special, discriminatory status that has endured for decades.

Now California has an opportunity to right this wrong. State Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) has successfully shepherded a bill through the Legislature that would give those who do the backbreaking work of picking fruits, vegetables and nuts equal status with other workers.

Opposition to the legislation, predictably, comes primarily from the farm lobby, which maintains that the current rule granting overtime only after 10 hours in one day or 60 hours in a week is all the industry can afford. But agribusiness argues in circles. Some growers say their profits would wither if the proposed overtime rules were made mandatory. Others say workers, not farmers, would suffer, because growers would dodge new overtime rules by hiring more employees to work eight-hour shifts. Still others argue that it’s consumers who would pay, in the form of higher food prices.

Variations of those arguments were put forth by other industries when the eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek were debated decades ago. But officials opted to pay workers fairly. The formula can vary — some lawmakers favor overtime for an eight-hour workday, others prefer a 40-hour week before overtime is required — but the parameters are not negotiable. Furthermore, if growers eventually elect to hire more workers instead of paying overtime, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; job creation is a boon to the state.

We acknowledge that growers may indeed incur additional expenses, and yes, consumers may see a rise in prices. But the new law also would benefit the economy by putting more spending money into the pockets of farmworkers and, perhaps, by creating new jobs.

And let’s not forget the “subsidy” already enjoyed by consumers and growers: The farming workforce is largely made up of illegal immigrants, who often will work for lower pay than U.S. workers, with few if any benefits. Normalizing their working conditions should be the concern not only of those who favor fair treatment but also of those who understand that employment double standards encourage illegal immigration.

The state’s growers do have special labor needs, but the solution is for Congress to pass legislation that would provide them with a steady, legal stream of labor — not for California to uphold discrimination. We encourage Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign SB 1121.