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Wage Theft in the Chile Fields

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Green chile.

The greatest gift New Mexico has given to the world, when you visit the Land of Enchantment, that chile is found everywhere from the most humble breakfast burrito (breakfast taco is second rate Texans) to the high end overpriced Santa Fe restaurants where tourists from the Upper East Side play Mabel Dodge and wear hoop skirts or buckskin with fringe as they go out to dinner. The smell of roasting green chile in the fall is the single greatest smell on the planet.

Regardless of where you eat your chile, you probably don’t think much about how the chile is produced. Like the rest of agriculture, we do a really good job of separating our consumption from the production of the plant or animal. And that’s certainly true of green chile, where we can hold onto an image of a small family farm surviving for 200 years on acequia irrigation rights than we can for beef or corn or tomatoes or whatever. We are supporting the local economy by eating this product that can only be grown in a few places (although an increasing amount of New Mexico green chile is now grown south of the border). But the reality is that the conditions in the chile fields are bad and wage theft is depressingly common.

In the cool of the early morning, the crew of about 60 workers moves quickly down the rows, rushing back and forth to the crates. Lopez, a big woman, is soon breathing heavily. As the day progresses, the temperature rises, hitting 88 degrees. Exhaustion kicks in, and everyone slows down.

Lopez was told that the crew would work until noon that day. Then 12:30. Finally, at 1 p.m., she calls it quits. “I work until my body says, ‘Stop,’ ” she says. Her legs hurt, her arms hurt; she is spent. She holds out her right hand. It is shaking.

Soon, more workers leave the field. But the tractors keep coming, bringing more empty crates waiting to be filled. No one gets paid until the day’s quota is met, so Lopez waits. At around 2 p.m., there’s a long pause between tractors and she’s convinced she’ll finally get paid. Then another one pulls up. She shakes her head and mutters “pendejo,” a profane word for idiot. By the time she’s paid, she’s lost yet another hour. For filling 55 buckets, she’s paid $46.75. She worked 6.25 hours and waited another two.

She should have earned much more. With rare exceptions for very small farms, state law mandates that when workers are paid hourly—for example, when weeding a field or picking chiles—they must receive the New Mexico minimum wage of $7.50 an hour. If Lopez’s wait time is factored in, her hourly pay falls far below $7.50. That means that, in effect, her wages were stolen.

This is a very strong piece of journalism, demonstrating the many ways that workers wages are stolen, how little most buyers of green chile care one way or another, and how the state of New Mexico simply doesn’t have the resources to do anything about it. It also has a governor that doesn’t care about poor people, which doesn’t help. Of course this is hardly unique to green chile. Wage theft is “as common as dirt” among farm workers generally. With the exception of the late 60s and 70s, when Cesar Chavez was a useful stand in for Martin Luther King among white liberals who wanted to do something for change without dealing too strongly with their own complicity in a racist America, farm workers have always been the forgotten workers of the United States and that’s certainly true today.

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  • OT but on the subject of Wage Theft I heard a jaw dropping NPR piece, probably by that human wen Kai Risdall, about the current situation in Greece. They managed to explain that the economy was utterly destroyed after 6 years of recession and austerity, that the public sector had collapsed, that unemployment was at least at 28 percent, that pensions and savings had dissapeared or been clawed back by the government and also that “most private employers were surviving by simply not paying people’s wages at all” like for a solid year, secure in the knowledge that their workers would rather nominally have a job and work all the hours with no pay than have no job and no work. The phrase “wage theft” was nowhere mentioned. This was described as a rather sensible business practice.

    • All part of the class war waged by the elite and their tools(think idiots like David Gregory and Brian Williams) on the rest of us.

    • LeeEsq

      It never ends. Building local, country-wide, and even international worker’s movements seemed more than a little easier during the late 19th and early 20th century than it does in the present even though governments are usually less overtly oppressive and theoretically the decisive factors that might split the working class decreased.

  • Antoni Jaume

    What is the profit in keeping people two hours without working?

    • DrDick

      The profit is in degrading them and lording over them, while hoping they give up and leave without collecting their wages.

      • Correct: some number will leave without being paid,and some number will go back to work, even if not at full efficiency, and then won’t be paid for that extra time.

    • Nobdy

      Being lazy is profit in itself (or at least a benefit to be doled out to supervisors), and assuring that nobody can leave until the quota is met (if they want to get paid) puts pressure on people to work harder and longer.

      Not every bad labor practice is done because it directly translates into a line on a ledger. People in power abuse people without power because they can and it lets them take out their own inadequacies on the powerless (Stanford Prison Experiment etc…) Employment law is supposed to protect against these abuses and give everyone the power to protect themselves against these abuses, but without enforcement it’s just a pretty piece of paper filed away somewhere in the statehouse.

    • LeeEsq

      Bullying. Owning a business gives a person power and people often use power they have in very petty ways.

      • I think this is the real answer. I’ve seen businesses severely crippled by inefficient practices that have no practical effect but to kick the employees in the teeth.

  • DrDick

    Sadly all too common across the spectrum for low wage workers, especially seasonal workers. Looking too closely at how your food is produced (and who benefits) can ruin your appetite for a long while.

  • Rusty Spikefist

    OK, college-professor-who-wants-people-to-believe-that-college-professors-have-some-added-value-relative-to-a-MOOC, but…

    “Chile” is the country, “chili” is the food/vegetable.

    You will smile
    in Chile
    as your villi
    absorb chili.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Ever been in New Mexico, honey-chile?

    • As Lee also says, you are incorrect. Which is hilarious given your snarky attitude. Sounds like someone needs to get away from the MOOCs, take some food history courses.

      • Rusty Spikefist

        your stupid

    • currants

      oh dood.

      Chile. Vegetable. Or, as some non-native speakers say, “wedgetable” (four syllables, count ’em)

    • coconino

      Oh, you clearly have never been to New Mexico. Chile. Chile. chile. Chile. We do not ever call them chilis.

      Do yourself a favor. Spend some time wandering around Hatch, Deming, Soccoro, Chimayo, Truchas. Enjoy our beautiful state. But don’t ever call chiles chilis.

  • How would you say this compares to wage theft in the construction industry?

  • Major Rager

    “when Cesar Chavez was a useful stand in for Martin Luther King among white liberals who wanted to do something for change without dealing too strongly with their own complicity in a racist America”

    Sing it brother. So sick of all these sellout white liberals taking the easy route, just looking to assuage their conscience out while I’m out here in the vanguard, blogging and teaching history, taking real risks and getting my hands dirty.

    • JL

      Gee, I’m glad that these people coming in to snark about Erik’s profession are so interested in engaging the substance of the post!

      • I’m actually surprised that line didn’t attract more irritation.

      • Tirxu

        Sing it brother. So sick of all these sellout liberals bloggers taking the easy route, just looking to assuage their conscience out while I’m out here in the vanguard, commenting, taking real risks and getting my hands dirty.

  • I live in Santa Fe and I’m sorry to read this, but not surprised. Susana Martinez, the GOP governor, certainly isn’t going to do anything about it. I do think the context here is a bit different from other places with migrant farm worker populations, such as California, because NM is such an overall poor state. So although we’ve got a colony of multi-millionaires in Santa Fe, we generally don’t have the huge class differences either financially or ethnically; the state is half Hispanic and many of the people who live around Hatch and Deming aren’t a whole lot better off themselves. There is also a substantial component of cultural inertia because things have been the way they are for a very long time — centuries, really.

    But you’re right about the chilis/chilles. The smell of them roasting everywhere in the fall is heavenly. We buy bags and bags of them to freeze, then put them in everything. Layered on a grilled cheeseburger they’re amazing.

    • Mike L.

      I visited family and friends in the Albuquerque area recently and had green chiles at every opportunity. I especially recommend the local pizza place in Corrales. Green chiles on a pepperoni pizza are just phenomenal.

      But seriously, this sort of thing is going to drive me to attempt to grow my own chiles here in Flagstaff.

    • coconino

      Yes, makes me want to be very judicious about my chile source. It would be nice to find a Socorro/Hatch farm that uses fair labor practices from which to purchase chiles.

  • Shwell Thanksh

    I love all kindsa chiles, Hatch included.
    Breakfast burrito, that’s like a breakfast taco only with beans in it too, right?

    • Traditionally a taco is a small, soft, corn tortilla that is folded in half.

      That deep-fried thing they sell at Taco Bell is not really a taco.

      A burrito is a large flour tortilla that gets rolled up.

  • Tim

    You imply that there was a significant number of people who were sympathetic to Chavez but not to MLK. Was that really the case? This was before my time, but I was always under the impression that those who supported Chavez tended to be the same people who were sympathetic to King, and vice versa.

    • No. I’m saying that with the rise of Black Power and the assassination of King, there were a lot of liberal whites who wanted a fairly easy cause around race to participate in in a passive way while rooting for a charismatic leader dedicated to nonviolence, unlike those bad men in the cities. Chavez provided that through the hunger strikes and grape boycott.

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