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Drought and Farmworkers

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The California drought has not only devastated owners, but the workers who rely upon migrant farm work to survive:

On July 11, Camacho was working at a health resource fair in Mendota, a rural farming community west of Fresno. Of the 100 or so farmworkers who attended, Camacho says more than half were being affected by the drought. “What people are saying is that there’s just not the same amount of work that there was prior to the drought,” Camacho says. “People are out of work. People can’t pay their bills, their mortgage. They can’t support their families.”

Camacho says the decrease in work may be depressing wages as well. “We hear about workers asking for wage increases and getting laid off because there’s someone else willing to work for $9 per hour,” he says, which is below the mean wage for farmworkers in Fresno County, according to the BLS. “People should be paid more but there are others willing to work for less.”

Camacho has also heard about farmworkers who are giving up on finding work for the season. Workers who came up to Fresno County from Coachella and El Centro have gone back home, he says, “because there’s no work.”

Cortes, of the UFW, says he is even seeing farm worker families leave the area. The UFW has contracts with many growers in the area, but Cortes says the farms have all reduced planting by 30 to 40 percent this year because of the drought. The season started about a month ago, he says, and it will be over in just three to four weeks because of the smaller crop size.

For some growers, reducing the size of this year’s crop has not been enough to stave off economic ruin. One UFW-contracted grower hired just 400 farmworkers instead of its usual 600 to harvest its tomato and melon crop this year. Despite these cuts, Cortes recently received a letter informing him that the grower is going out of business. Now those 400 farmworkers will have to find other jobs. (He did not reveal the name of the employer because negotiations for possible severance pay are confidential and ongoing.) According to Cortes, many of the workers are considering moving to Oregon or Washington, where they hope to find steadier employment.

As a former farm worker who has been on staff with the union for six years, Cortes describes a season of hopelessness for farmworkers around Madera, the county north of Fresno where he’s based. “Farmworkers are not getting any support from the growers,” he says. “The growers have support from the governor and the federal government, but the farmworkers get nothing.” According to Cortes, more than 90 percent of the farmworkers he organizes are undocumented immigrants, which limits their ability to receive government aid. According to the California Economic Development Department, undocumented immigrants are not eligible to seek unemployment insurance.

And of course the government does nothing for the workers because the unjust immigration system makes them “illegal.”

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