Originally printed in . . .
Report Spotlights Farm Labor Contractors
This information has been adapted from an article prepared
by Suzanne Clark, Public Information Representative, College of Natural
Resources, University of California, Berkeley.
Knowledge about farm labor contractors in California has not kept pace
with their growing significance to agricultural business, despite the attention
that public agencies give them under a plethora of laws and regulations.
While more than 1,000 FLCs are responsible for some 20 percent of all farm
employment in the state, anecdotes about the misdeeds of some have been
more plentiful than informed understanding of their wide ranging business
practices in relation to customers, employees, and government agencies.
A new UC report to the Employment Development Department presents results
of interviews with 180 labor contractors in the Fresno, Imperial, Monterey,
San Joaquin-Stanislaus, and Ventura-Santa Barbara County areas during 1991.
It addresses such questions as: Who becomes an FLC and why? How are their
businesses organized? How and where do they market their services? How
do they manage employees and deal with government regulation? What is their
outlook on the farm labor market?
EDD's Labor Market Information Division contracted with the UC Agricultural
Personnel Management Program to conduct this study, which also included
complementary surveys of growers and workers. Survey interviewers were
much more likely to reach "visible" FLCs, selected from government
agency files, than unlisted operators. Although contractors who flaunt
even the basic filing requirements were underrepresented, the report adds
to evidence of a sector of FLCs trying to run their businesses effectively
and fairly within the guidelines of public policy.
Study findings may be quickly brought into assessment of recent legislative
initiatives and new regulatory proposals affecting labor contractors. Material
in the report has already been considered by the U.S. Commission on Agricultural
Workers and the state Farm Worker Services Coordinating Council. Among
conclusions of the study are that:
- FLCs are an established part of agricultural industry in California.
Having evolved along with production technology, workforce demographics,
and the regulatory climate, labor contracting today typically engages native
Spanish-speakers of Mexican descent for work on farms run by English-speakers.
It relieves growers of burdens associated with direct employment and supervision
of workers, especially for seasonal tasks of short duration, and can provide
workers more continuous earning opportunities in a succession of such tasks.
Contractors use specialized knowledge and skills, offices, computers,
and field equipment. Most of those interviewed have enduring relationships
with customers and direct ownership interest in at least one related business.
- Contractors are mostly of Hispanic background, about half born in Mexico
and more than one-quarter in California. More than half speak Spanish
at home. Most are in their 40s and 50s, average less than 10 years of
total schooling, and have plenty of agricultural experience. More than
a fourth have been growers or farm managers. Committed to the occupation,
they operate as FLCs an average of nearly nine months a year.
- Labor contractors have various "product lines" and business
sizes. With different crops, organizational structures, and preferences
for direct involvement in farm production, customers have different sets
of needs that they hire FLCs to serve. Most contracting firms are small,
but the one-seventh with payrolls exceeding $1 million account for more
than half of all FLC employment and three-fifths of wages paid. Nearly
all contractors employ foremen to deal directly with workers - recruiting,
hiring, instructing, assigning tasks, and enforcing work rules. The number
of foremen at peak season averages 8 and ranges up to 62. Family members
of the contractor are involved in two-thirds of FLC businesses, most commonly
in office tasks.
- Contractors in the survey tend to have a stable customer base. On
the average, they provide services to 15 growers or packing houses, but
some have only one customer, and even some large FLCs do all their business
with a few. Less than 20 percent put their arrangements with any customers
into the form of a written contract. The structure and amount of FLC charges
to customers vary more between than within crop and regional groupings.
A sizable minority of the contractors say that they accept commission
rates determined by customers.
- Core personnel functions usually served by FLCs include recruiting
and hiring workers, directing them to the worksite, supervising their work,
and paying wages. About half of a contractor's workforce is composed of
returnees from the previous year. Recruitment of new hires is most frequently
through "walk-in" or referral from foremen and other current
employees. Contractors generally provide drinking water and field sanitation
facilities and often furnish tools. Less commonly, some contractors provide
worker transportation, housing, food, and check-cashing services.
- To enter the contracting business requires little or no capital investment,
and most FLCs do not find the license examination and bonding requirement
difficult. Operating as a contractor in full compliance with the law,
however, is much more challenging. Four out of five contractors in the
survey had been inspected by at least one government agency during the
1987-90 period. Contractors are concerned about regulatory priorities
and the irony of greater attention being given by administrative agencies
to those who are more stable and observant of laws.
- Differences in how government agencies define FLCs are reflected in
respective lists of those registered with the U.S. Department of Labor,
licensed by the state Department of Industrial Relations, and filing unemployment
insurance as labor contractors. Only 506 of a total 3,580 entities on
any of the three lists are on all of them, and an unknown number of persons
who act as labor contractors are on none of the lists. Nonuniform definition
of the FLC population inhibits understanding and coordinated enforcement
of applicable regulations.
Overall project leader and principal investigator of the study was APMP
Director Howard Rosenberg. Project coordinator and field work supervisor
was Suzanne Vaupel, Vaupel Associates, Sacramento. Other co-authors of
the report were Jeffrey Perloff, Department of Agricultural and Resource
Economics, Berkeley; David Runsten and Don Villarejo, both of the California
Institute for Rural Studies, Davis. Additional members of the study team
were Christopher Edmonds, Vijaykumar Pradhan, Ana Garcia, Loretta Lynch,
and Youssouf Camara.
The report is being published by EDD. Copies will be available through
the LMID Special Projects Unit, phone 916/262-2123.
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