Farmworkers traveling to the chile fields of Hatch, NM, Oct. 1993.
The Border Agricultural Workers
More than 12,000 agricultural laborers live and work in the border region of El Paso-Ciudad Juárez-Southern New Mexico. The majority are from Mexico or of Mexican origin and work mainly in the chile fields of Southern New Mexico and the El Paso Lower Valley and Hudspeth County in Texas.
The chile pickers are the poorest of all American farmworkers. Officially, they have an annual income of less than $6,000 or about 30 percent of the income of an average family living under the Poverty Income Level. But in Southern New Mexico, not all farmworkers receive the same low wages. Women, children, and the "undocumented" receive even less pay than the rest of the farm labor force.
However, low wages are not the only problem.
Almost one-fourth of the chile pickers are women, yet not only do they earn less, but they also suffer all types of abuses including continuous sexual harassment. The majority are single mothers, heads of households, who work all day and then go back home to take care of the needs of their children.
The median educational level for farmworkers is less than sixth grade. Also, at least half of these farmworkers lack a place to live.The combination of poverty, lack of education, inability to speak English and fear of loosing their jobs makes farmworkers vulnerable to unjust practices, low wages and hazardous working and living conditions.
Farm labor is the most dangerous occupation in the nation according to the US Department of Labor. The life expectancy is only 50 years of age and the majority who survive become seriously disabled due to the use of dangerous tools and machinery and the more frequent use of highly toxic pesticides.
The wages in the chile fields of Southern New Mexico and Hudspeth County have not changed in the past years, although the value of the chile production has increased due to a growing demand for "picante" sauce.
The typical "work-day" of a chile picker:
2 hours waiting at the recruitment site,
4 hours traveling to the fields and back to the recruitment site,
from 6 to 8 hours picking chile,
1 to 2 hours waiting to get paid,
or about 16 hours to earn about $30...
In the El Paso- New Mexico region we have the farm labor contracting system. The farmers use contractors who recruit the workers, take care of the harvesting, and pay the workers at the end of the day. In this manner the farmer is not responsible for complying with all of the applicable laws and regulations. Most of the contractors operate in violation of federal law. The United States Department of Labor is in charge of enforcing the laws which protect farmworkers, but they rarely inspect the fields and they don't act to investigate complaints made by workers.
The recruitment takes place every night in the streets of South El Paso. Thousands of human beings congregate in these places hoping to earn enough to support their families. But most of the time, they return to their homes with less than the minimum wage after suffering all types of abuses at the hands of the farm labor contractors.
In an effort to bring dignity and justice to this farm labor community, we have been organizing in Southern New Mexico and Hudspeth County since 1983. We have concentrated our efforts in unifying the workers and forming tasks forces made up of the workers themselves to solve some of the most urgent problems. As a result of this activity, wages and working conditions have improved in some farms in Doña Ana County, New Mexico.
But there is still much more left to be done.
The most important accomplishment in almost fifteen years of struggle is the creation of the Centro de los Trabajadores Agrícolas Fronterizos. Located in South El Paso, in the heart of the border movement, the center is a multipurpose support facility for the border agricultural workers. This center has served to renew the hope of a better life for the chile pickers and for the workers in general.
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