The 'Grapes of Wrath' Are Still Plenteous Today

LAST August I worked in the chile fields of southern New Mexico in the 105-degree heat for one day, experiencing what tens of thousands of hand harvesters in the United States experience every day.

I drank from the same cup that 60 other workers used, contrary to federal law that requires individual cups.

We had no faucet at which to wash our hands, also illegal.

We had no portable toilets, despite a state law requiring one for every 20 workers.

A survey by the US Department of Labor shows that at least a third of all migrant workers lack these basic sanitation facilities in the fields. In New Mexico they are virtually nonexistent, except during brief periods when inspectors make their rounds.

I also received much less than the minimum wage in my hopeless attempt to keep up with more experienced pickers.

Wage-and-hour enforcers from the Department of Labor come only during the height of the season, when most people earn more than the minimum wage anyway, on a piece-rate basis. I talked to a chile picker in November who had earned $40 a day in September, but was making only about $17 a day two months later.

The illegal practices of growers, which cause much human misery, are never mentioned in the national debate over welfare, immigrants, and the minimum wage.

President Clinton is right when he says that the minimum wage of $4.25 is not enough to make a decent living in 1995. This is particularly true for migrant laborers, who end up working an average of half the year in the fields, because of the seasonal and sporadic nature of their work.

What shocked me most in my research on migrant workers was the depth of hunger among them. I met two men who hadn't eaten in two days, after walking from another town 10 hours away the previous day. People frequently walk for days in the blistering heat to get to work.

Not eating for two or three days is ''normal'' for migrants, as a woman in a legal-aid office expressed it ironically. She says whole working families will sometimes go on one meal a day.

Housing is squalid everywhere for seasonal agricultural workers, but in New Mexico the growers almost never provide any shelter. Housing code enforcement is very lax; some people sleep in abandoned buildings and others in fields.

One family of 12 I met in Hatch, N.M., lived in a two-room apartment with three twin beds, a couch, and a crib. There was no shower or tub, and the septic tank was overflowing. The building had just been condemned, so the parents were looking for a new place.

The mother talked about their problems in a raspy voice. She said rattlesnakes and some kind of brown snake had dropped out of a foot-wide crack in the kitchen ceiling. She also had a hospital bill for $800. ''Where are we supposed to get this money?'' she asked in Spanish. ''Do they want us to eat stones?''

From what I could see, food assistance, whether from the government or from church organizations, was a sheer necessity, even for people who worked all they could. Most migrant workers have some sort of legal status, but nationally only 22 percent of a sample of migrant and formerly migrant households had received food stamps over a two-year period.

Within walking distance of this family, I spoke to a store clerk whose vitriolic response to my questions about where workers lived stunned me. Veering from my question, she barked back that these people were ''all on welfare'' and ''don't want to work!''

When I told this to the family and their neighbors, they laughed. All of them were working very hard, they said, some doing yard work after hours. They did not come over 1,000 miles from southern Mexico to get put on welfare.

I talked to children who had been in the fields all day. They told of seeing a fellow worker, a woman, faint, and of hearing about a man who'd been run over by a tractor. Migrant agricultural workers are in one of the most dangerous job categories, but 14 states, including some major agricultural states, do not require workers' compensation for them.

A 1994 Department of Labor report comments that ''migrant'' workers, so necessary for the success of the labor-intensive US agricultural system, subsidize the system with their own and their family's indigence.

Interestingly, I found myself being subsidized, in effect, by the chile pickers during my day in the fields. These naturally generous people put extra chiles in my bucket when I was lagging, bought me cans of soda, and carried my last bucket to the truck. When I asked a man why they were doing this, he said, with an undertone of anger, ''Because they've never seen a white person working in the fields!''

Migrant agricultural workers are not taking jobs away from anyone.

What should be done about widespread abuses among growers? Perhaps legislators should take a hint from those who voted for California's Proposition 187, which strips illegal immigrants of government benefits. Maybe those who make workers subsidize their agricultural enterprises should be denied some of the $10 billion in farm subsidies they get annually from Washington.

Maybe they should be denied Medicare and Medicaid if they do not provide workers fair compensation or sanitary facilities, or if they cause children to miss meals. Or they could be denied Social Security benefits when they retire if they are found in violation of minimum-wage laws.

What's more likely to occur is that migrant workers will continue to be ignored by the press, by the public, and by legislators. Or could it be the right time to focus attention on the abuses these people suffer? The anger against migrants by local residents I talked to made me think of what you hear about oppressors needing liberation as much as the oppressed.

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