Special Reports

Workers endure bad conditions with little recourse

Most illegal immigrants work in industries notorious for violating labor laws. But often they don't complain, not wanting to draw attention to themselves. So the violations go undetected.

"Sometimes you'll walk into a situation and workers won't talk out of fear," said Richard Longo, West Coast enforcement director for the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division. "Things may seem fine on the surface, but not everything is OK."

In the Central Valley, the farming industry has come under particular scrutiny. Federal laws require farmers to provide portable toilets, shade tents and water to field workers, but violations still occur — often with fatal consequences. Between July 2004 and July 2008, 15 farmworkers suffered heat-related deaths in California, according to a report released this summer by Farmworker Justice, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group.

Rick Newton, Central Valley director for the government's Wage and Hour Division, said local employers' compliance with labor laws hasn't improved much over the past decade, despite the U.S. Department of Labor's efforts. In response, the government has increased the number of inspectors nationwide.

Government officials and some farmers say farmworkers, especially illegal immigrants, are mistreated in many ways: They sometimes are improperly exposed to pesticides, extreme heat and dangerous farm equipment; they may be paid less than minimum wage, be forced to bring their own tools or to forgo meal breaks. Often, they must pay exorbitant transportation fees because they either don't have cars or can't get driver's licenses because they are illegal immigrants.

The United Farm Workers of America has successfully pushed for changes over the decades that include requiring growers to pay at least minimum wage, provide paid breaks, and protect workers from pesticides and heat-related illnesses.

But Arturo S. Rodriguez, the union's president, said the government has done a dismal job of enforcing the rules. He said the best way to make sure the laws are followed is by unionizing workers.

"These [farmers] are going to try and get away with everything they possibly can, and that's where we feel like we play a major role," he said.

Officials acknowledge there are challenges. Cesar Avila, Wage and Hour Division's West Coast enforcement coordinator for the agriculture industry, said farmers are increasingly relying on farm-labor contractors, who he said sometimes are "fly-by-night operations." The requirements to become a licensed labor contractor are "minimal," he said.

"You have folks who one day are a crew boss and the next day are registered to be a contractor," Avila said.

Guillermo Zamora, a farm-labor contractor, said he treats his employees well, but he's heard stories of other contractors taking advantage of farmworkers, especially illegal immigrants.

"To some extent, it's true: Employers mistreat people who are here illegally," he said. "The employer says, 'This guy has no paperwork, what's he going to do to me?' "

Other industries that commonly employ illegal immigrants also skirt labor laws. In recent years, a coalition of state and federal agencies that inspect businesses in California with a reputation for being part of the "underground economy" — including agriculture, construction, car-wash stations and wood-pallet makers — has ordered companies to pay their workers millions of dollars in wages due. Employees often are paid piece-rate — per filled bucket of fruit, for example — instead of an hourly rate. That makes it easier for some employers to get away with paying below minimum wage.

More than 400 California employers in these underground industries were convicted for labor-law violations from 2005 to 2009. Inspections have resulted in more than 18,700 citations leading to $38.7 million in fines.

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