Migrants who harvest the fruits and vegetables are indispensable to the agricultural industry in the U.S. However, they are people caught in an unfair and sometimes cruel system. "Migrant farmworkers have been called the invisible people. They work apart and they live apart. They are invisible to the larger community and to the government. Migrant labor camps are usually located deep inside large farms where the workers are not likely to be seen by outsiders. If they live in towns near their work they live in rundown houses in parts of the community most people try to avoid. These "colonias" are sometimes the outgrowth of labor camps. When new migrant housing is planned, it runs into opposition from growers who are willing to hire Mexicans but do not want to live near them. An article in the Sept. 22, 1990 issue of the Fresno Bee cites the experience of Ben Barunda who tried to build 28 units in Burrell, near Carruthers. Nearby farmers convinced the planning commission to deny a use permit. He did finally win on appeal. The issue of migrant housing caught my attention because as I drove in the rural areas near Madera and Dos Palos, I saw terrible rundown shacks and wondered how anyone could live there.
A second reason this issue attracted me is because I feel it is at the root of many of the other problems that plague the migrants. Materials available on this topic seemed to be weak in the area of current statistical data. Several books consisted of pictures that seemed to have as their goal an increased awareness of, and sympathy toward, the situation. Most books were published before 1980 so the data is not current. Two good sources were an essay that appeared in the New York Times in 1971 by Donald Jansen, and Heap's "Wandering Worker". The local Fresno Bee had a couple of articles in 1990 which were good current sources. In that same year there was some coverage of the results of a winter freeze on farmworkers, but it was quickly pushed to the back pages by the Gulf War. Nevertheless, it seems in an agricultural area there should be more coverage of this issue. Before giving my opinions and recommendations I would like to include an overview of what I believe to be the main factors in the issue of migrant housing. Later, in my recommendations, I will address each of these factors. First, enforcement of existing housing requirements is central.
The United Nations Department of Social Affairs Handbook of International Measures for Protection of Migrants and General Conditions to be Observed In Their Settlement, published in 1952, states in Article 21, section 5-36a regarding migration of refugees states, "The competent authority of the territory of immigration shall ensure that hygienic and suitable housing is made available to settlers and their families." If the U.S. can't do even as much as the United Nations wants for its refugees and displaced persons this tells us something. Eleven years later (1962) in California, a report by a special Governor's committee stated the "80% of farmworkers lived in grossly substandard housing, one third of the houses had no flush toilet, nearly one third had not bath, and 25% had no running water at all..That year the state, using seven million in federal funds, built 26 seasonal farm labor camps. The camps, ranging from 50-150 units each, are called 'flash peak housing'; they are boxlike cabins that have two partitions, 'bedrooms', a tiny living room-kitchen, and a bathroom that contains a toilet bowl and a shower. These 20 x 25 foot cabins have no form of cooling and become unbearable ovens in the 100 plus degree San Joaquin Valley summertime temperatures." Most states and the federal government have codes, but due to lack of adequate financing and staffing they are poorly enforced at the state level by the Department of Health and the federal level by the Department of Labor.
At the local level, the problem is conflict of interest. Out of friendship, local enforcers just look the other way. A second by related factor is the overcrowding and substandard nature of the housing. These poor living conditions lead to poor physical, mental, and social health. For example, a 10 x 12 ft room is home to a whole family. There is one bed for six people, a 12 x 12 room for a family of eight, four families sharing a trailer. Fire, poor drainage, poor water, garbage, and broken down outhouses all are concerns. Next, the factor of racism and prejudice cannot be ignored. The proud migrant who prefers work to welfare is seen as dirty, unskilled, and lazy by many growers. Not all growers are prejudiced. Many have learned that attractive, clean, well maintained camps can attract workers who are careful and will care for the housing. Others still argue that it is useless to have clean housing because migrants are dirty and will ruin it. Others argue that the trend toward automation will make it a waste to fix up housing that will be useless in a few years. These farmers look forward to getting rid of their migrants. Racism is certainly a factor in many cases. Finally, fear of retaliation by powerful growers is a factor that keeps housing substandard. Negative action may cost farmworkers their job and whatever housing is available. Also it is costly to go to court even though it does work. Further scams are put over on the workers. For example, to avoid a suit over poor conditions, an owner signed over the housing to the worker for the season. Then he wasn't owner and couldn't be held liable. This was ruled illegal by the state courts. Local agencies sometimes set fines on owners artificially low so it is worth it to pay fines and maintain the substandard housing. The situation here in the San Joaquin Valley provides a good example of these factors. In 1990, Efraim Camacho of the California Rural Legal Assistance said, "I've seen things this year that I haven't seen in the past five." There are no toilets and they're sleeping on the ground; for this they pay the grower $12 a week. The San Joaquin Valley's housing situation is worst during the raisin drying season. There are too many workers competing for too few units. There are 563 state run housing units, but over 10,000 workers. These units rent for $3-$4 a day and are clean and well run. They always fill up the day the camps open. Next, cheap apartments and sheds fill up. It's not uncommon to find twenty persons living in a two bedroom house.
A person paying $60 a month for use of space in a barrack with no toilet or cooling is quite normal. The Fresno Bee reporter found one family of six living in a shed smaller than a normal sized garage for which they paid $100 a month. He also found a woman who lived rent free but had to rent a portable toilet. "Farmworkers rarely complain about housing because they end up not with improvements, but with eviction notices." When gathering information for the Bee article, workers had to be promised that their living site wouldn't be revealed for fear that they would be shut down and have no housing at all. An incident appearing in the April 15, 1990 Fresno Bee, while not relating directly to housing, does show a common attitude toward migrant laborers. The Griffith-Ives Ranch, 50 miles north of Los Angeles, hired workers for $1 an hour for a 16 hour day. They had to purchase goods at the company store at inflated prices. One of the workers, Fernando Maldonado said, "It was slave labor." The workers were forbidden to leave until monies owed the smuggler, for bringing them across the border, were paid off. Basically they were imprisoned and taken advantage of. Even after paying the smuggler off, usually within two months, they were kept from leaving by seven foot high barbed wire fences and the constant threat of being fired and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) being alerted. One of the things I did for research that made this paper a unique experience for me was to observe conditions, both good and bad, firsthand.
I visited and interviewed Luis Mendez, and irrigation foreman at the Wolfesen Ranch in Dos Palos, California. He lives in a fairly modern tract house about a stones throw from a barracks style mini-labor camp; one of many spread throughout the 15,000 acre ranch. I had a chance to see these buildings up close and get personal impressions from Mr. Mendez. First he recalled living in the solos (men only). They lived seven to a house; "it was hard times." Mr. Mendez added that they "were both men and women." At first I didn't understand; he explained that they worked all day and then came home and did their own cooking and cleaning. The workers living in the solos on this ranch pay $20 per month; it's deducted from their paycheck every fifteen days. The rooms are cleaned every day, have heaters and coolers, bathrooms with indoor plumbing, and showers. He says it's not overcrowded, but to me seventy people in such close quarters sounds like a lot. Not only his workers live in these camps. Workers with different areas of expertise make up the camps. For example, although some of his people (irrigation) may live there, there are also workers from other divisions such as cotton, tomato, tractor, alfalfa cutters, and so on. His crew all live on the ranch, but may be widely dispersed. I asked him if there were any hard feelings over the housing situation. "There is always jealousy, but it doesn't affect our relationship; it's more envy. I have no bad feelings toward them, nor do I see them as less." Mendez emphasized that, "The person who comes first gets the house, but there's only so much to give." An issue that he raised, that I found nowhere else, was that workers have preferences; many don't like to live on the ranch. Reasons cited were living in too close quarters and being "on call" for their employer if anything should go wrong. Mendez praises his current situation but says, "Many ranch owners won't give Mexicans a chance to live on the ranch because they consider us dirty Mexicans, and we wouldn't take care of their property." Mendez states the reason he was able to live rent free, utility free--paying nothing was, "because they wanted me near, but mainly, it's position that gets you a house." When comparing other ranches to this one, the main difference cited is the workers here are treated as equals. For example, when something breaks it's fixed right away; the workers in return take good care of the housing. Mendez says, "This man (the owner) cares about his people. He makes sure it gets done. He encourages his employees to take pride in their work/living areas. He basically expects of his employees the same that they expect of him." Mendez said, "I'm happy with what I have! The workers realize that they have it better than most (they've worked at other ranches also)." To get the best housing possible, "you have to have the will. A lot depends on luck. For example, if there's a house that's empty, if you're there first--you'll get the house.
This is possible even if you're not a supervisor, foreman, etc. It all depends on luck." The solution, in my opinion, must address each of these factors. Lack of code enforcement, overcrowding and substandard units, racism, and grower power. Responsibility for migrant housing must be transferred from the growers, except perhaps from those who are doing a good job of providing housing. Government migrant housing must be supported by government funding and meet minimum standards, both in the home base and stream states. There must be an adequate supply of units. A major problem is overcoming resistance to this low cost housing. Stereotypes cause it to be seen as contributing to welfare and education costs. As Lee P. Reno of the Rural Housing Alliance states, "Running throughout these fears is the racism which follows most farmworkers throughout their lives, since they are, by and large, minority group members." The federal government in 1989 built only one-sixth the number of housing units it did ten years earlier here in the valley. In addition, something must be done to control illegal immigration. Amnesty and immigration reform has ironically led to worsening of housing problems. More immigrants continue to come, and many of those granted amnesty now wish to bring their families. This worsens the pressure on the limited existing housing. More are competing for the few units. Solo barracks do not fill the needs of families. Undocumented people will not complain out of fear of deportation. Since no complaints are made, no improvement occurs. Growers resist building housing for two reasons: strict government codes and a desire to have less direct involvement with laborers. The growth of labor contractors has allowed this to occur. These contractors are often unprincipled people who take advantage of the workers. Once again, until the problem of illegals are solved, contractors will have people who cannot complain when they're taken advantage of. A very controversial idea would be to provide, through the government, a guaranteed minimum income.
It would provide income support to guarantee a basic standard of living for migrants. In times of such budget deficits, it's unlikely that funds would be available for this. Alternately, the union, if it's strong enough may be able to provide pressure to provide better wages and housing. Again, uncontrolled immigration keeps the union from increasing its power. As long as growers have alternate sources of labor they can break strikes. Perhaps, even though it is the most difficult of all, prejudices, stereotypes and racism must be attacked. Education and more contact between the "invisible people" and the mainstream must lead to more good will and trust between the two groups. Laws and money are important, but beneath it all a belief in the humanity and value of all men is necessary for true solution of this issue.
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Pantheon Books, 1970. Handbook of International Measures for Protection of Migrants and General Conditions to be Observed in Their Settlement. New York: United Nations Department of Social Affairs, 1952. "Farmworkers Claim Imprisonment At Ranch." The Fresno Bee, 15 April, 1990, p. A-2. Podger, Pamela J. "Freeze Victims Are Told To Persevere." The Fresno
Bee, 3 May 1991, p. B-3. Pulaski, Alex. "Laborers' Housing Worsening." The Fresno Bee, 23 September 1990, pp. A-1 and A-8. "Always With Us, Always Us." The Progressive, August 1982, p. 12. Eder, Martin. "Encinitas Workers Fight City Eviction Notice." The Guardian, 12 April 1989, p. 4. Mendez, Luis. Irrigation Foreman, Wolfeson Ranch, Dos Palos, California. Interview 12 April 1995.  Brent Ashabranner, Dark Harvest ( New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1985), p. 10.  Ronald B. Taylor, Sweatshops in the Sun (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), p. 109.  Alex Pulaski, "Laborers' Housing Worsening, " The Fresno
Bee, 23 September, 1990, pp. A-1 and A-8.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Donald Janson, "Migrant Workers: Worst-Housed Group in the Nation", The New York Times, 27 November, 1971, (reprinted on p. 502 in Introduction to Chicano Studies).  Alex Pulaski, "Laborers' Housing Worsening," The Fresno Bee, 23 September, 1990, pp. A-1 and A-8