Hey, let’s exploit farm workers!

As an agricultural laborer, mostly by avocation but recently by trade as well, I have a dog in this fight. My line of work is an honorable one that keeps the public from starving, so the rest of you shouldn’t shit on us or encourage those who do. I don’t expect to get rich at these jobs, but I do expect something resembling payroll income in accordance with applicable labor laws, work conditions that don’t prematurely grind me into the earth that I work, and at least the same level of respect that is normally shown to America’s hordes of overly educated useless eaters.

In a decent society, these conditions wouldn’t have to be articulated because they’d be met without asking. What we have instead is a society in which the planters have imported the Mexican peasantry wholesale, employed it in conditions that are often dangerous, physically ruinous and abusive, and economically dispossessed the native-born population that would otherwise work the fields, largely in its own hometowns. Sociologically, this makes absolutely no sense. From a depraved, strictly economic perspective, the one used by the planters, it’s brilliant.

Let me be blunt: there should be no need for farm managers in the United States to speak Spanish. None. That should not be a job qualification. The normal recruiting pool already has full native fluency and literacy in the national language. There are some morons in the nonmanagerial labor pool (I’ve worked with them), but the managers aren’t being recruited from among the village idiots. The problem that even perfectly intelligent, competent, qualified, and responsible management candidates often face, however, is that they don’t speak Spanish well enough to communicate with some of Mexico’s most backwards, uneducated, illiterate expatriates. This would be a reasonable cause for disqualification if these gringo farm boys were applying to be social workers in rural Michoacan, but they aren’t. They’re looking for farm work in their own hometowns, and they’re being shut out because they don’t speak a neighboring country’s national language. Ironically, many Mexicans speak excellent English, but they’re underrepresented among immigrant farm laborers because the grunt jobs select for those with the most limited opportunities; fluency in English opens a lot of doors, both in El Norte and back home.

Instead, the people who show up to work our fields are disproportionately the equivalent of a horde of dropouts from the Mississippi Delta descending on Bordeaux for vineyard jobs. Our amphibious friends across the pond would be mightily pissed off if they were forced to learn English solely in order to accommodate such a lumpenproletariat, one that was cultivated in large part by another country’s bad policies; we shouldn’t blame Americans for being discomfited upon having their professional options curtailed by an equivalent onslaught from some of the most backwards parts of Mexico.

Actually, there’s an even harsher gloss that can be applied to the motivations of the planter class in demanding Spanish proficiency of Anglophones for jobs in an Anglophone country that have nothing to do with linguistics. Quite a few expatriate farm workers pick up proficient English on the job, and more yet raise American children who acquire native fluency in English by their mid teens, if not in early childhood. It’s important to note that job postings for farm managers usually specify bilingual proficiency in English and Spanish as a qualification, not merely proficiency in Spanish. After all, the planters and their gringo managers want to be able to communicate effectively and precisely with their Mexican managers, because miscommunication can cause all sorts of glitches. This puts the second-generation children of Mexican immigrants at a distinct advantage for farm management jobs, and immigrants who learned proficient English at a somewhat lesser advantage.

Where does that leave the real local yokels: the old-school Germanic yeomen, the Euromutts, the reservation Indians, the blacks and so forth who didn’t hang out with Mexicans enough to pick up passable Spanish? Shit out of luck. Sorry, dude; it’s a changing world, and you’re missing that job qualification. Maybe Tom Friedman can turn this into another flat earth column.

Maybe Tom Friedman can be impressed into a stoop gang in a nursery bed for nine hours, to complain about his burning glutes while I snicker from beneath a walnut tree.

Disturbingly, management-level recruitment is the easier part to figure out. Most agricultural job postings on Craigslist are for managerial and/or technical positions, and they’re numerous enough to draw some working conclusions about the labor market dynamics in play. But this doesn’t explain how the hell farms find all their grunt workers. The consensus seems to be that the help sneaks across the border, maybe forges documents or misappropriates Social Security numbers, and either drops in at farms to inquire about work or hangs out on street corners (like big-city day laborers often did a decade ago) and waits to be solicited. If it sounds like streetwalking, it’s because it isn’t all that different from streetwalking, just not as well paid, and with a lower risk of venereal infection but a higher risk of repetitive stress injury.

Any serious consideration of this labor market or comparison to other menial labor markets in the United States, however, suggests that there’s somewhat more organization to the market than that. Many of these farms, after all, are big concerns with full-time payroll staff of no relation to the owners. One wouldn’t expect such enterprises to rely on an ad hoc recruiting strategy, and indeed, there are numerous agricultural labor contractors in many farming districts. The mystery is why they so rarely advertise for help. It took me months to find an ad for the Willamette Valley contractor that hired me a few weeks ago. As far as I can tell, none of its competitors have been advertising for help on Craigslist, even though it’s summer in a region with huge wine grape, cherry, and berry crops.

It gets weirder when one hears dire warnings of shortages of agricultural laborers, and even retrospective reports of crops rotting in the fields because no one showed up to pick them. One would think that these circumstances would result in a flood of English-language ads saying things like, “Blueberry pickers wanted.” Instead, there’s only a dribbling of such ads, often outnumbered by “se busca piscadores de blueberry.” One has to wonder: does management want to get its crops picked, or does it more specifically want to get its crops picked by an underpaid, abused, meek foreign peasantry?

The answers can sometimes be found in obscure corners of the internet. An example: the H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural laborers requires that employers demonstrate a shortage of qualified American laborers prior to importing their braceros. They aren’t allowed to just say that they looked around town and didn’t see any suitable gringos; they have to advertise openings for a designated minimum period on radio and in print, and for what it’s worth, they have to demonstrate that the employment of foreign guest workers won’t adversely affect the wages of the gringo workforce whose existence they perennially deny.

The convenient thing is that their definition of good-faith help wanted advertising and the Department of Labor’s may differ somewhat from yours. One of the favorite platforms of Washington State growers, for example, is something called Washington JobSource. This raises some questions, prime among them: what the hell is Washington JobSource? It turns out that it’s a workforce development program run by the State of Washington and that it has a fairly well organized help wanted board that is devoid of the scams that proliferate on Craigslist. Despite routinely scouring the internet for farm jobs, I had never heard of it until about a week ago. It has literally dozens of times more postings for nonsupervisory agricultural help than Craigslist, probably because no one who really wants a job looks there and then inconveniences farm managers by applying for openings while white. Washington JobSource is the kind of platform where people look for work when they want to convince important officials, usually unemployment clerks or probation officers, that they’re looking for work. Only the subnormals and the desperate have ever heard of it.

There’s an even scummier trick that some farmers have up their sleeves. The usual custom in employing Mexican peasants is to pay them. Sometimes, contrary to my cynical arguments above, they’re paid at well above minimum wage because market forces leave no other viable option. At other times, they’re paid because the bureaucrats are paying too much attention to for the planters to get away with nonpayment. Really, though, that whole game is for chumps, because if you hire Whitey, he’ll work for free.

You read that right. This week, at a time when liberally there might be three dozen farmers and farm labor contractors on the West Coast advertising for help in English, several hundred farmers are advertising for help through a shady outfit called WWOOF. Every now and then this acronym gets repurposed; to date, it has stood for Working Weekends on Organic Farms, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and, most unctuously, Willing Workers on Organic Farms. It came as a surprise to learn that my paid work for the aforementioned labor contractor was unwilling, as it involved my relocating to the Willamette Valley, making a short-turnaround trip to San Jose for a birth certificate, calling the office, sitting for an interview, accepting a job offer, showing up on my own steam at the designated times and places, and working without coercion for the promised payroll income. When my self-perceived willingness to do the job crashed (due to a combination of unreformed gringo felons and shady Mexicans on the crews, an extended semiambulatory weekend after a single day doing stoop labor in a nursery bed, and negligible instruction followed by berating that I hadn’t done the job correctly), I stopped coming to work, and no one even hassled me about it, let alone showed up at my motel with a shotgun and chains. I’d be more willing to rub down hot flight attendants for $40 an hour, but I’d be willing to put in some more hours for this contractor, especially at harvest, when it’s nearly impossible for the sentient to screw anything up and the company pays piecerate. Nor did I think there was anything unwilling about my taking the initiative to call a vegetable farm manager yesterday about a help wanted ad that he had posted on Craigslist. The triads didn’t make me do it. Or did they?

In the topsy-turvy world of White People, willingness is inversely correlated to the existence of a pay grade. My thinking is that I’d better tolerate drama and patently inadequate supervision in an area where I have no friends at $20 an hour than I do at $9.10. My fellow Brahmins, on the other hand, see the very provision of a paycheck as a degradation implying that farm work is somehow work. You know, because all that workaday bullshit sullies a noble lifestyle of fucking around in the countryside doing specific jobs under the supervision of a freeloading hippie property owner in exchange for room and board. That is, if you don’t end up with some asshat planter in Tallahassee who bans you from the dinner table because you’ve already had enough to eat, or living in an outbuilding with nowhere to properly shit all night because your French hosts don’t want you coming into their house to use the toilet while they’re sleeping. The Tallahassee planters had an indigent Frenchwoman working overtime for them, so it was a combination of bad luck, indifference and moral cowardice that kept the French consulate and the US and Florida Departments of Labor from getting involved. This is the kind of thing one normally associates with minor Saudi royalty and their Filipina maids. Southern planters mostly stopped treating their white employees that way after Bacon’s Rebellion, so that’s a real respect for the regional history, a respect that Paula Deen would admire.

That’s another thing White People Like: travel adventures. It’s impossible to reason with some of them that they’re sleeping in shacks and shitting in boxes because their hosts are some combination of immoral, backwards, and misgoverned. Nah, man, it’s hip and full of White People street cred; retro’s the bomb, dude. These situations can violate duly enacted housing, labor and sanitation codes, and still the SWPL tenant-employees have too deeply ingrained a sense of moral relativism to complain.

Again, I have a dog in the fight: I was involved for years in a worsening mess of this sort in the unpaid employment of close relatives, and I’ve considered returning to it because my job prospects elsewhere, especially in agriculture, are tenuous. The difference is that this mess is clearly the result of a dysfunctional family life in which the principals, a deeply unethical and narcissistic couple, manipulate other relatives into enabling them and making excuses for their torts and crimes while I, alone, having been provoked several times too many, openly consider filing suit and contacting the police. As depraved as the principals have gotten and as cowed and obsequious as their enablers have become, no one needed an international website to organize it all.

And at the risk of being censorious, I must say that such a website probably should not exist.


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