California's farm labor market is not likely to change significantly in the next three to five years, but risk of dramatic change continues to mount, warns a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis.

Philip Martin detailed his views in a panel presentation at the Spring Outlook Forum of the California Chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers in Sacramento.

He said his prediction for little change was based on continuation of the present farm labor situation: roughly two-thirds of the workers are unauthorized, an increasing percentage of them are hired through farm labor contractors, and pay is going up with the minimum wage.

“But for those who take a longer time horizon on these issues, the risk of some kind of dramatic change, now difficult to anticipate, is always there.”

Farm labor, he said, can be reduced to simple terms of how to get enough workers at a reasonable cost. “For the past 100 years the answer has been to open the border and let in people, mainly from Mexico, who want to work and make higher wages than they could make at home.”

Farm workers are expected to return home after peak labor needs, and Martin noted that their average age is about 30, indicating they do farm work for a time and then seek to change to some other work.

Opinions division

Although groups have sought reforms, they have been divided between those who wanted to break up large farms into smaller ones, essentially trying to make farmers out of farm workers, and those who wanted more regulation of farm labor.

Advocates for regulation won out, and today farm labor is regulated much the same as non-farm labor. “But,” Martin added, “there are big differences that highlight the risk factors that build up. Those factors are: all employers have to recruit employees, they have to remunerate them, and they have to retain them.”

Today, nearly 45 percent of overall farm labor recruitment is through intermediaries, or contractors, and that is much higher during harvest. It is an inefficient, decentralized system that is spreading, Martin said.

Because farmers tend to ask for more workers than they actually need and contractors tend to promise more workers than they can provide, labor surpluses occur in one place and shortages in another.

Remuneration, or pay, in agricultural labor has been historically by piece rates. “In California, as the minimum wage keeps rising, there may be a tendency for farmers to shift workers to hourly wages to avoid hassles of monitoring the pace of work.”

Share SS numbers

Although farmers contend they retain many of the same, experienced workers year after year, Martin said it may be a case of old Social Security numbers being used by new people. A project with the Employment Development Department is tracking Social Security numbers and has found that one million numbers are false and the number is rising.

Martin said solution to avoiding the risks will likely fall between two extremes: a guest-worker program or legalization of workers. A likely possibility is an “earned legalization” program.

Basically, that would allow undocumented workers to become legalized by showing proof, such as a letter from a labor contractor, that they have worked a given number of days over a given period of years. The intent would be that continued reporting would help retain more workers in agriculture.

However, Martin said he questions whether the program would actually improve retention, since fraudulent letters of proof could be easily purchased by anyone from unscrupulous labor contractors.

Panelist Bert Mason, professor of agricultural economics at California State University, Fresno, and former member of the California Agricultural Labor Board, said farm labor legislation is following public perceptions of agriculture.

New attitudes

“Attitudes toward agriculture are also changing from the traditional views that farmers are good to those that blame agriculture for many of the state's problems,” he said. Among influences are a growing Hispanic population and dominance of “urban liberals” in the state legislature.

Agriculture, he said, is no longer “the 800-pound gorilla” that can demand response from legislators in Sacramento. Few “middle of the road” politicians are in office, and politics in general are more fractured. Meanwhile, labor will continue to be more expensive and more regulation will be cumbersome for employers.

“California ag will survive, but we will need to focus on what we are really good at. We are good at investing research, technology, high yields, and high quality. We are not so good at competing on low-labor costs,” Mason said.

Legislative bills

Panelist Martha Guzman, legislative coordinator for the United Farm Workers of America, described three bills now in the legislature.

A.B.923 (Firebaugh), sponsored by the UFW, targets the current tax exemption farmers receive for operational purposes and proposes a tax credit only to those employers who provide health insurance for farm workers.

S.B. 60 (Cedillo) would make all Californians eligible for a driver's license, regardless of their immigration status.

S.B. 179 (Alarcon) would require written contracts between workers and labor contractors in construction, garment, janitorial, and security industries, as well as agriculture.

Guzman, who is a member of the California Water Commission and the California Agricultural Leadership Program, said the union is also working on environmental regulation matters.

“We understand the issues and we want to work on them with you,” she said.