Farms Increasingly Rely on Subcontracted Farmworkers

June 29, 2006

After 33 years of planting, pruning and harvesting grapes that make world-renowned wine, Jorge de Haro is about to lose the only job he’s ever had.

De Haro and his co-workers at Charles Krug’s Napa Valley, Calif., vineyards are being replaced by field hands supplied by third-party contractors, part of a growing trend sweeping farms nationwide.

Farmers say contracting out their labor frees them from liability and the risks of doing their own hiring. It also gives them more flexibility in a seasonal industry.

Charles Krug is handing over its 450 acres to a land management firm that will bring in its own workers with vineyard experience, as well as specialized technology and machinery. The switch will also cut off union representation at the winery.

“The secret to making good wine is having good grapes, and it makes sense to have the most professional people doing it,” said Tom Fossey, Charles Krug’s chief financial officer and labor negotiator.

But for field hands like de Haro, who has few skills that are marketable outside the vineyard and little money saved from his $9.60-an-hour earnings, losing his job is tragic.

“People need to support their children,” said the 53-year-old de Haro, whose last day on the job is Saturday. “I’d never thought of leaving.”

Working for Charles Krug, which is owned by the Mondavi family, allowed him to work around people he knew, with vacation, holidays off, health benefits and a pension plan. The winery’s field hands voted in 1975 to be represented by the United Farm Workers _ one of the union’s first victories under a new farm labor law that let farmworkers bargain collectively.

That contract expired in September 2005, and the parties’ inability to reach a new agreement led to the decision to turn the vineyard over to a land manager, Fossey said.

“It’s an attack on the benefits we’ve fought so hard to get for these workers, an effort that started with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta,” said Roberto Garcia, a UFW organizer, naming two of the labor leaders who founded the union.

Many industries have seen an increased reliance on temporary workers or outside contractors in recent years, and agriculture is no exception, said Phil Martin, researcher with the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics with the University of California, Davis.

In 1983, about 28 percent of California’s farmworkers were supplied by a contractor; the rest were hired directly by farmers. By 2002, about 43 percent of workers in the state’s fields were hired by a third party, according to the latest numbers available from the state’s Employment Development Department.

The change just makes good business sense, said Tim Chelling of the Western Growers Association, a trade group representing some 3,000 growers, packers and shippers in California and Arizona.

“This is an indication of the industry becoming more sophisticated than 20 years ago,” Chelling said.

Hiring workers legally and for the short window that nature offers for harvesting each crop has become more complicated and costly over time. That makes labor a high-risk, high-liability part of farming, said Steve Scaroni, who hires up to 1,500 workers in peak season, making them available to growers across the West.

“A lot of companies just chose to outsource it because they just don’t want the risk,” Scaroni said.

It also makes sense financially. Scaroni operates in 12 different geographical areas, moving his harvesting equipment and employees to where they’re needed — California’s Central Coast and the San Joaquin Valley during the summer, Arizona’s Yuma Valley and California’s Imperial Valley in the winter, and other growing areas from Nevada to Mexico in between.

“I keep my equipment and my people busy, while a farmer in Salinas might have his equipment sitting around for months at a time,” he said.

Theoretically, workers can benefit from a relationship with a labor contractor as well — they don’t have to look for their own jobs, and the labor market would be more stable, Martin said.

But because third-party contractors are often used to place workers in lower-skilled positions, and often bid for the jobs, they tend to be associated with lower wages, illegal workers and more recently arrived immigrants, he said.

“Most workers prefer working directly for farmers if they can,” Martin said.

While it’s true that contractors might hire more recent immigrants than farmers, Scaroni said, the wages are comparable, and they’re just as strict if not stricter about screening employees to make sure they are here legally.

Officials with Charles Krug said land managers they’re familiar with pay at least as much as they do.

But to de Haro, being turned away from their fields after a lifetime leaves a bitter taste.

“The company wants to get these contract workers because its cheaper for them, easier,” he said. “We’re disillusioned, and feel the company doesn’t care.”

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