Aid on way for farmers who employ Hispanics

Monday, December 20, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:58 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

An increasing number of mostly Mexican immigrants are growing, harvesting and packaging Missouri’s crops and meat. For these workers, finding housing, work and health care is often difficult.

Likewise, employers in agricultural businesses are struggling with language, the law and cultural differences in their attempt to make the workplace safer and more efficient.

At a Jan. 7 workshop in St. Joseph, José Garcia, a sustainable agriculture expert with MU Extension, will help employers address the problems they face when employing Hispanic, often migrant, workers.

Workshop sessions will include discussions about cultural understanding and communicating with a Hispanic work force, labor laws and workers’ rights, and pesticide safety for farm workers.

Hispanics are the state’s fastest growing population — almost doubling from 1990 to 2000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau — and they work overwhelmingly in agriculture.

Garcia, who is originally from La Paz, Bolivia, estimates that “easily 70 to 80 percent of those (Hispanic) workers work in agriculture or food processing.”

According to the Census, there were 118,592 people classified as Hispanic or Latino living in Missouri in 2000, up from 61,702 people of Hispanic origin in 1990. Boone County has seen a similar increase, from 1,226 in 1990 to 2,413 in 2000.

Joe Tillman, former director of the Missouri Migrant Education Program and the English Language Learning Program, estimates there are 10,000 migrant workers in Missouri. Only a small number of them have been identified, however, because most are undocumented. Tillman, who is also a doctoral student in rural sociology at MU, now works for the Kansas migrant education program. There are similar programs in every state funded under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Garcia said that many employers in the Midwest send recruiters to southern Texas, southern California and sometimes Mexico to meet possible workers. These migrant workers come “in the summer and in the spring to Missouri and stay six, seven or nine months” before traveling back to their homes, he said. However, a much larger group of Hispanic agricultural workers stays several years, sometimes permanently, in the Midwest, working to send money home.

And many migrants move frequently, Garcia said. Though they might not return to Mexico or the Southwest at the end of a growing season, many of these Latinos change locations in search of work in the fields and at food plants.

These moves make it difficult for Hispanics to find housing in the small towns where they work. Additionally, most of them are working to send money home. To save as much as possible, they look for low-cost housing, which they often share with other workers, Tillman and Garcia said.

“Landlords, I guess, are not very open to the idea of having several tenants in a very short time,” Garcia added.

Garcia tries to help concerned employers improve working conditions for their Hispanic employees. In addition to helping interested employers find places to learn Spanish, he also gives them basic information to keep their workers safe. The employers benefit from a happier and more productive work force, he said.

“That person has the same rights and needs of any other worker,” Garcia said.

The hard life of moving frequently, working in harsh conditions and failing to get adequate health care takes a heavy toll. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the average migrant worker has a life expectancy of 49 years — about 25 years short of the average American life.

Tillman said that because the high turnover — sometimes nearing 100 percent every six months — there is a risk that employers see migrant workers as an “expendable population.” Employers often do not invest the time to teach workers basic workplace safety, and many workers suffer from exposure to pesticides and untreated work-related injuries, Tillman said.

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