Farmer Exhorts Workers During Labor Rights’ Week

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Larry Cox
Larry Cox addresses trends and obstacles for farm workers during the Labor Rights Week conference.

EL CENTRO —In an effort to increase awareness and inform the Mexican and Latino communities about their fundamental labor rights, the Mexican Consulate held a worker conference Tuesday at the Center for Employment Training in El Centro, initiating the Labor Rights’ Week (LRW).

“This campaign is designed to educate the Mexican/Latino workers of their labor rights. We have seen cases where workers aren’t paid according to the law. Employees or in some cases, day laborers, are forced to work long hours without proper pay, breaks, and or lunch times,” said Carlos Flores Vizcarra, Consul Titular, Mexican Consulate in Calexico.

Labor Rights’ Week evolved from a well-known initiative as an additional resource for the defense of laborers’ rights. The increasing number of people participating every year points toward the success of the initiative, the consulate said.

The first Labor Rights’ Week was organized in 2009 with the participation of 15 Mexican Consulates in an equal number of cities. The inauguration took place in Los Angeles, with the presence of then U.S. Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis.

Regardless of the legal status, every employee in the U.S., including day laborers, have a right to know and exercise their legal rights.

“’Labor Rights’ Week, I have rights in the Workplace’ runs from August 31 through September 7, and will be held in the 51 U.S. cities where Mexico has a Consulate, and in some cases in other cities within the geographical jurisdiction of these consular offices,” explained Vizcarra.

Many of Tuesday’s speakers advised the workers present where to go for legal and employment aid when labor rights have been broken. Larry Cox, a Brawley farmer who grows produce in Mexico, Salinas, and Imperial Valley, spoke of the future of farming for workers.

Cox explained produce buyers will not spend more just to have product from California, as growers’ prices in Arizona, Georgia, and Mexico always run lower. California growers have extra costs that cannot be passed on to consumers. Extra regulations, stiffer laws, and higher wages can make farming less competitive in California, according to Cox.

Farmers’ highest expenses and stiffest regulations are in labor, Cox explained. An investment in high-tech machines that can harvest, thin, plant, and weed are being designed and bought to replace labor so as to compete in the world market.

“These machines are replacing many people. The future of agriculture are in these machines,” Cox told the room. “Fifty years ago, tomatoes grown here for ketchup and tomato sauces were all picked by hand. Tomorrow, all by machine.”

With laser optics, machines will thin lettuce, perfectly calibrate per-needed spacing, even selecting the best seedling to remain, Cox said, imitating the laser with his fingers firing imaginary beams to imaginary seedlings saying, “Optica, optica, optics,” with each finger jab.

“So for the young people, and for you, you need to know how to operate these machines,” Cox added, bringing the point home to those listening.

The California farmer has to figure out how to grow his crops cheaper and cheaper to stay competitive with the rest of the United States and foreign countries not hampered by the state’s employment rules, operating regulations and high minimum wages, Cox said. Hand labor has become unaffordable. A farmer must manage his costs very closely.

The regulations hurt more than just the farmer and the worker. One hundred years ago, 40 percent of the take-home pay went for food, Cox said. Fifty years ago it was 30 percent and 10 percent just a few years ago. Today, food takes 17 percent of the paycheck. Yet these gains could be reversed, as food costs are rising again, Cox said, relating the cost of regulations and wages to every family in the room.

As sons of ranchers return to the farm in decreasing number, many instead choosing to pursue more stable income as doctors, lawyers, and teachers, family farms are bought by corporations looking to the bottom dollar in costs rather than for employees who have been faithful to the company. Therefore, Cox implored, it is important to go to school, rather than rely on family connections.

“You need to learn to work the machines that are taking away the large labor force. You will earn more money. Go to school at night and learn farm safety regulations, you will be more valuable to the farmer and if he doesn’t give you a raise, you can shop your skills elsewhere,” Cox said.

“Don’t spend your nights on the video games or taking selfies. Go to school, read, make something of your self,” Cox added, concluding his talk.