Guest workers find nightmare in American Dream
TULELAKE, Calif. – The ad in his hometown newspaper was enticing, the meeting with a company recruiter even more so.For six to eight weeks of strawberry work, Ricardo Valle and his wife, Ana Luisa Salinas, would get good pay, free transportation to and from Mexico, three daily meals – even a little “cabanita” with a kitchenette that they would share with another couple.Like many of the 250 Mexicans on U.S. guest-worker visas who arrived Sept. 22 at this lonely post near the Oregon border, Valle and Salinas did the math: In the contract period promised, they could make more than they would in a year and a half in Nogales, Mexico. Valle quit his maquiladora job where for a dozen years he had assembled electric curtain motors.As strict immigration enforcement limits the pool of available farmhands, growers are clamoring to expand the U.S. guest-worker program. But the experience of the workers, whose contract ended last week, offers a rare look at the system’s pitfalls.In interviews and legal declarations, dozens of workers have said they went hungry not just on the bus north but in the weeks that followed.Instead of cabanitas, they got crowded dorms. They were also paid less than they’d been told – and than the law required – for a shorter period than promised.”From the moment we got on the bus in Nogales, we knew they were feeding us lies,” Valle, 52, said as he tended to his sick wife in a cramped dormitory set up in an exhibition hall on the county fairgrounds here.On the bus, he said, “they gave us a liquid diet – pure water – for 24 hours. Those who had money could eat. The rest of us, we ate air.”After they arrived in Tulelake, the workers said, they found out their contract term had been cut nearly in half, to just over a month. Furthermore, they were required to trim 1,025 strawberry plants per hour. Without farm experience, meeting the goal proved so grueling that they worked through breaks and lunchtime. Many failed and quit. Others were fired. Soon, only a little over half the original workforce was left.The employer, Sierra-Cascade Nursery of Susanville, Calif.ornia, is now under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees the guest-worker program. California’s Department of Industrial Relations also has ordered the company to correct numerous wage violations, and conduct a self-audit.And, responding to an emergency request by attorneys for the nonprofit advocacy group California Rural Legal Assistance, a federal judge in October ordered Sierra-Cascade to make meals more nutritious, give workers more living space and heat the fairgrounds’ frigid shower rooms.Sierra-Cascade’s human resources director, Larry Memmott, said the company was using the visa program for the first time and had made mistakes.”We may not have provided the proper food for them in the beginning,” he said. “We may have missed a meal. But we went in and corrected what we need to correct … We’ll take our lumps and move forward.”The complaining workers were “bad apples,” he added.Advocates with CRLA, which has filed suit on behalf of more than 50 guest workers, point to systemic problems that arise when human labor becomes an import commodity. Workers entirely dependent on the sponsoring company are unfamiliar with the law and unlikely to complain, they say.”Unlike workers in any other part of the free market who have the ability to vote with their feet, these workers don’t,” said Mark Schacht of the rural legal group’s foundation, which plans to propose state legislation to strengthen worker protections.”These guys get delivered when the employer wants. They get taken away when the employer wants, and they are subjected to a regime that has elements of un-free labor,” he said.Sierra CascadeSierra-Cascade’s strawberry seedlings are grown in Northern California and Oregon, trimmed by workers and shipped to warmer climates. In 2004, Memmott said, an immigration review indicated that 80 percent of the company’s workers were undocumented.”Last year, we couldn’t fill our trim shed at all,” Memmott said. “We figured that this year we weren’t going to wait and see.”Memmott recruited workers in the state of Chihuahua and in neighboring Sonora, which has achieved relative prosperity from ranching and multinational assembly plants known as maquiladoras.Some Mexicans learned of the jobs through friends. Some saw fliers. Rigoberto Talamantes Flores and his wife, Alicia Punuelas Ledezma, both 42, of Nuevo Casa Grande, Chihuahua, heard a radio pitch.”We thought we would come, because of the illusion that it would alleviate some of the economic pressures on us,” said Flores, who shuttered his shoeshine shop to make the trip.The pay, they said, was to be $9 an hour – the legally required rate under the program – plus production bonuses. Nowhere in the solicitation, workers said, was any mention of the high work quota. That was disclosed only in the contracts handed out in Susanville, where the bus dropped off 200 visa holders before taking the Tulelake guest workers farther north.Disappointments multiplied upon arrival. The site of the U.S.’s largest World War II Japanese internment camp, Tulelake sits in a desolate volcanic basin of rich soil.”We were cramped so close together that our legs would knock when we put on our shoes,” said Reyna Amelia Tarango Ponce, 45, of the dormitories. Her husband closed his Chihuahua brake shop to come north.The eight-hour days that workers say they were promised , and for which they were paid, quickly stretched to 10 – and longer, with the bus ride to the trim shed, where they stood in the cold for up to an hour waiting to begin.Breakfast at first consisted of bread and coffee; after a few weeks the food did improve when Memmott changed cooks. Come payday, many workers were unable to cash their checks in the tiny town, whose bank is closed Saturdays and charges $15 for the service.”We have nothing – not even enough to buy soap,” said Valle, who, without change for the laundry machines, spent Sundays scrubbing clothes under a cold outdoor spigot and drying them on the fairgrounds’ chain-link fence.The gloves, aprons and boots that advocates say are required by law were not provided, though some workers purchased them.Attorneys for the workers claim the production quota is unreasonable and should have been disclosed during recruitment. Memmott says he showed them a video and told them: “It’s going to be cold. It’s going to be hard work.”But a lack of experience hampered many of the visa holders.A Oaxacan laborer from the Central Valley took pity on the guest workers and contacted the Fresno office of the CRLA. That organization alerted regulators and dispatched attorneys to Tulelake.Memmott said his company is cooperating with the Department of Labor. He said the laundry machines now operate without coins and the kitchen is serving healthier fare, including fresh fruit.Meanwhile, the state Department of Industrial Relations’ Division of Labor Standards Enforcement has notified Sierra-Cascade that it is violating labor law by failing to pay overtime after eight hours, to ensure rest breaks and a 30-minute lunch break, and to compensate workers for time both in transit and waiting to begin work.They “intend to correct the issues we’ve addressed and pay restitution to their employees,” said Department of Industrial Relations spokesman Dean Fryer.The pending lawsuit claims, among other violations, that the company, through false representations, enticed the workers across an international border.Memmott attributed the problems to the program’s learning curve.Next year, he said, the company might seek more-experienced workers farther south in Mexico. Advocates, however, say they may petition the Department of Labor to block Sierra-Cascade from using the guest-worker program.Still, some damage cannot be undone, workers said.In Mexico, where age discrimination is pervasive, Valle is certain he will never get back his maquiladora job.”Twelve years to quit for the American Dream, which is now a nightmare,” he said.