The Facts About Farmworkers

A Second Look At the Numbers

In his October 21 Crimson article; Peter Ferrara argues that the considerable public support and sympathy for the United Farm Workers, AFL-CIO has been generated by deliberate misrepresentations by union leaders regarding (1) the wages of farm laborers; (2) their living and working conditions; (3) the economic position of their employers and the extent of farm labor support for the UFW. Although there have been a number of very strong responses to it already, Mr. Ferrara's argument is so faulty in its use of data and so misleading in its inferences that we felt we should add our voices and some further material to the criticism.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Mr. Ferrara's article is its implication that the typical farmworker is a satisfied, relatively well-off citizen who has little need of or desire for a union such as the UFW. It is hard to square this image with even a minimal knowledge of the realities of farmworker life. Our own very different experiences (one of us spent many years in a community regularly employing migrant labor and the other worked for two years as a legal services attorney among farmworkers in Delano, California) only confirm what has been said and observed by countless others who have researched the farmworker problem. The farm laborer's existence has been and continued to be characterized by poverty, insecurity, injury and illness, as well as systematic resistance to attempts to better conditions through unionization.

Mr. Ferrara would have all of us who have responded to appeals from the UFW for aid and support believe that we are the victims of a concerted and quite massive misrepresentation. No fair and reasonable assessment of the relevant date could support such a conclusion.


Mr. Ferrara argues that "most farmworkers' wages are far from substandard," and quotes wage figures of $8000, $12,000 and $15,000 per year. He claims the far lower wage figures usually cited are the result of (1) aggregating part-time workers and full-time workers, thus artificially lowering average earnings, and (2) failing to include earnings from piece rates which he claims are a substantial element of farmworker income. Neither of these assertions in remotely defensible.

USDA figures published in 1972 indicate that there are 2.8 million farmworkers (defined as anyone who did farm labor for money any period of time) who averaged 88 days of work per year and $1160 in annual wages. It can hardly be argued that aggregation distorts this figure, since the USDA breaks the general category down into subcategories, and no subcategory of workers averaged earnings anywhere near the figures quoted by Mr. Ferrara. (See Table.) The USDA's finding that no subcategory of farmworkers averaged even a minimally decent average wage is confirmed by three separate studies (by the USDA, a research group at the University of Denver, and by a subcommittee of the California Assembly). Each of these studies show that 75 per cent of all farmworkers have annual incomes below federal poverty guidelines.

Mr. Ferrara is correct that USDA figures may not include all wages from piece rates, but, given the realities of agricultural production, it is inconceivable that piece rates would substantially increase the income of a significant number of farmworkers. First, there are only a few instances where piece rates are paid as an increment to a base hourly wage, and piece rates alone generally produce low earnings. (Testimony before the 1969 Senate Sub-committee on Migratory Labor indicated that only 10-25 per cent of all farmworkers worked on a piece rate basis and that, at a maximum, a worker might earn 50 per cent above the hourly wage by piece rate.) Second, because piece rates are available only at harvest a laborer must follow the crop in order to maximize piece rate earnings. Third, weather and crop conditions must be excellent in order for a worker to make any significant amount of money on a piece rate basis.

Perhaps the best way to examine the assertion that piece rates regularly generate farmworker earnings in the range of $8000-$15,000 annually is to consider the potential yearly earnings under, ideal conditions, of the highest paid farm laborers--the lettuce and grape workers under union contracts. The lettuce worker contracts provide for wages of $2.44-$2.49 per hour and piece rates of 42-45 cents per box. If (1) climate and crop conditions are excellent; (2) a worker follows the year-round lettuce harvest from Arizona up the California valleys; (3) the laborer cuts lettuce (the most back-breaking job in the harvest); (4) there is a minimum of dead time (when crops aren't ready or transportation is slow); (5) the laborer works a 6 day week, 50 weeks a year; and (6) the worker is skilled enough and fast enough to earn as much as $35 per day at peak season in late summer, then, and only then, might yearly earnings be as high as $7000 or $8000 per year. Of course, the work load and pace would be grueling and the likelihood is almost negligible that all of the necessary conditions would coincide for any length of time. Even less likely is the possibility that they would occur for other farm laborers. In the grape crop, for instance, even if a worker followed the harvest, the season runs, in the best of years, only from May to October. There is no conceivable basis for suggesting that individual earnings could generally be as high as $15,000 per year.

Living Conditions

As to living conditions, Mr. Ferrara focuses on the issue of whether laborers are "migrant," which he defines to mean without a permanent residence. He ignores the considerable data on the poor working conditions, health, education and housing of farm laborers and seems to imply that if workers have a permanent place o residence living and working conditions will be adequate. This is as factually incorrect as it is logically unsound.

Mr. Ferrara establishes no connection between permanence of residence and the conditions under which farm laborers live and work. For example, many California farmworkers with permanent residences must follow the harvests up the California valleys for as many as eight months a year, enduring the deprivations of labor camp life, despite their "non-migrant" status.

Nor can his attempt to portray the farm laborer as a "non-migrant" blunt the reality of both HEW's and the Department of Labor's findings that:

The average farmworker's life expectancy is 49 years (as compared to a national average of 72); `

Infant and mortality rates of farmworkers are 125 per cent higher than the national rate;

Incidence of influenza and pneumonia among farm laborers is 200 per cent higher than the national rate;