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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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