farmworkers. They claim that the labor department’s one inspector in this region cannot possibly oversee thousands of farm acres. “The DOL has a history of inaction,” said William Beardall Jr., litigation director of TRLA. “The agency has not been effective, either because it is short on manpower or because it is too responsive to political pressure [from agribusiness interests].” The DOL, however, denies the allegation, pointing to two strike forces sent into New Mexico’s chile fields following of a hundredstrong UTAF protest outside El Paso’s DOL downtown office. When DOL inspectors went into the fields at the end of August, they found widespread violations of the law: Ninety percent of the employers investigated were charged with breaking between one and 10 statutes of the Agricultural Worker Protection Act. The AWPA regulates the recruitment and transportation practices of the workers. The DOL levied thousands of dollars in fines against both growers and contractors for violations such as false disclosure of working conditions, inaccurate wage receipts and tax deductions, unsafe driving, unlicensed and uninsured vehicles. The agency also reported that 24 children under the age of 12 were found working the fields. An agency spokesperson said there were fewer employers in violation of the minimum-wage law than he expected 30 percent. Meanwhile, labor contractors point fingers at the growers, who employ them to hire, pay, and oversee the workers, saying that contractors can’t provide better conditions and wages unless they get a raise. The growers, on the other hand, say they pay their contractors plenty of money and that they houldn’t have to police the contractors. “It’s not our responsibility if the contractor doesn’t pay minimum or hires illegals, but we are the ones who have to pay the fines for violations,” said Randy Bouvet, a third-generation farmer from Las Uvas, New Mexico. Farmworker advocates argue that even though federal courts have placed the burden of lawful practice equally upon contractor and grower, both parties continue to shirk responsibility. “No one wants to take the blame for what goes down in the fields,” says TRLA’s Mark Schneider. “This game has been going on for as long as this employment system has existed. It’s the classic hussle.” UTAF’s proposed solution is to abolish the labor contractors who are the linchpin in a system that perpetuates the violation of worker rights. “The labor contractors are middlemen, and they shouldn’t exist,” says Willivaldo Delgadillo, a union organizer. “Our aim is to replace them with a contract between the growers, the packers, and the workers.” UTAF maintains that cutting out the cost of an intermediary could also increase the depressed wage for farmwork. But New Mexico’s farmers contend that their bucket rate is high enough, and that it is up to the Farmworkers at a downtown workers to earn a good wage. “They can make a lot of money if they aren’t lazy,” said Bouvet. “A lot of workers say they aren’t making enough money, but they go out there and are hung over. They just pick enough for a burrito and beer.” “Why they feel they need a raise, I don’t know,” said Don Hackey, director of the New Mexico Chile Commission. “We aren’t out there with machine guns, making them work. They’re not indentured.” The union recognizes that the power brokers in the chile industry are not the southern New Mexican growers, whose crop is worth $40 million, but the packers, whose products wholesale at $230 million. According to New Mexico State University agro-economist Jim Libbin, these corporations hold the cards, and growers can only afford to raise wages if they are paid more for their crop by packagers, who could then pass on the cost to consumers to avoid a loss in profits. Riding high on the tidal popularity of Southwestern and Mexican cuisine, packagers probably have the market clout to sustain such an increase, Libbin said. “Some companies say they have flexibility on the product pricing and others say they don’t. Everyone will try to avoid a raise.” Les Landis, communications director of Pet Milk Corporation, which owns Mountain Pass, a chile packaging company, confirmed that New Mexican chiles are enjoying worldwide notoriety. Mexican food products alone account for $300 million for Pet Milk. Landis hinted that it would be possible for the grower bloc to negotiate a higher price for chile. “Somewhere along the line, we need the product, and the farmer knows that we have that need. They have the wherewithal to know that in making their demands.” Landis said that even if his company agreed LOUISE PALMER El Paso recruiting site to pay more, the raise would not necessarily be passed on by the grower/contractor to the workers. For this reason, union leader Marentes says it is critical that UTAF forge an agreement with the growers and the packaging companies which would have to include a discussion of working conditions as well as wage increases. But he contends that neither party will negotiate until significant pressure is placed upon every segment of the industry because UTAF is essentially powerless \(the National Labor Act has not yet extended bargaining rights to unions repclusion, according to Marentes, may lead UTAF to stage a mass boycott of all chile products as soon as next year. If anything, a boycott would, as did the UTAF rally at this year’s Hatch Chile Festival, force consumers to acquaint themselves with the origin of New Mexico chile. On Labor Day 1990, BMWs and Volvos sporting Albuquerque and Santa Fe licence plates vied for road space, while hundreds of UTAF farmworkers crashed the Festival in a bright yellow school bus coming from the opposite direction. Some of the UTAF people, vermillion union flags in hand, worked the crowd, distributing explanatory leaflets. Others remained in the bus pasted with enlarged wage receipts showing subminimum wages joined the parade of cars and floats. Cheering moms, dads, and kids on their annual pilgrimage to the “chile capital of the world” looked on in surprise as they munched on chiles rellenos and savored salsa. It was the first time the farmworkers had come to see the fruit of their labor celebrated and on display. .0 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5
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