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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on August 3rd, 2022, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 23, Issue 23 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 23, Issue 23

Agriculture industry's economic increase presents continued wage issues

By Taylor O'Connor

Strawberries, wine grapes, and cauliflower along with several other fruits and veggies made big bucks for Santa Barbara County last year, rounding out to about $1.9 billion, according to the county’s 2021 agricultural production report


ON STRIKE
Despite Santa Barbara County having a strong economic year in the ag industry, several farmworkers haven’t seen increases in wages and have been going on strike for improvements since 2020. Pictured is a protest at West Coast Berry Farms that went from July 2 to 3, 2021.
PHOTO COURTESY OF CAUSE

The 2021 gross production value surpassed 2020’s by about $98 million (a 5 percent increase) with strawberries valued at $8.49 million, and wine grapes at $1.05 million, according to the report. But labor concerns press on in the ag industry, Mesa Vineyard Management manager Kevin Merrill said. 

“We’re still hoping that Congress can do something to get us a decent farmworker, guest worker program than the H-2A program that we use. We need that desperately industrywide,” Merrill said. 

The ag industry overall experienced several strikes from farmworkers who demanded increased pay for their work, but Merrill said his company hasn’t seen that happen yet. 

“A lot of that’s driven by the organizations that believe farmworkers aren’t treated right. [Majority] of growers in Santa Barbara County do their very best to take care of their workers and their workforce and provide the wages they can afford,” he continued. “I think the workers understand, we feel the same pain they do. We do our best to compensate them, but the market can only do so much. It’s a tough balance.” 

 

Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) Associate Organizing Director Zulema Aleman said that she understands there are things employers can’t control—like climate change restrictions and a fluctuating economy—but balancing employee needs with company needs should be a priority.

“To hear the ag industry is having a great year and [made] so much money and be proud of that [while farmworkers] are living in horrible conditions and not getting opportunities is really disheartening because employers aren’t doing much,” Aleman said. 

For example, farmworkers in the strawberry industry earn $1.80 to $2.10 for picking nine baskets, meanwhile strawberries run from $3 to $5 per basket in grocery stores, she highlighted. 

“They don’t have money to pay for rent, day care, groceries, or to pay for the things they have to pay for their families. They’re living and sharing a one-bedroom with their entire family,” Aleman continued. “Wanting funds to be able to afford what they need to afford and not have to make decisions to pay for rent, school stuff, or groceries isn’t wild to ask.” 

Policy advocates will conduct community outreach to inform workers about their rights and lawful wages according to the state because the California department of labor provides funding for them to produce information and materials, but they never lead the strikes themselves, Aleman explained.

“We actually call these wildcat strikes because we are doing our normal day, I’m grabbing a cup of coffee and I’ll have 10 missed calls from all these farmworkers saying, ‘We went on strike today,’” she noted. “Farmworkers are very smart, talented individuals who are capable of assessing their lives. They communicate with one another, and just as we’ve seen across the nation with Starbucks and unions for better work conditions, it’s what’s happening here. We will always support that and be something the community can lean on.”   










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