Indigenous Mexicans make up nearly a quarter of the farmhands who pick the apples, cherries and other crops in western Washington, a new survey has found.
The survey—”A Sustainable Bounty: Investing in Our Agricultural Future”—was conducted by the Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust and released last week. More than 2,800 farmworkers in 14 Washington counties were interviewed for the survey in 2006.
Statewide, indigenous farmworkers were 3 percent of those surveyed, while 95 percent of all farmworkers called themselves Mexican or Mexican-American. Indigenous peoples from Latin America are the direct descendants of the inhabitants who lived in the region before colonial times.
The number of indigenous workers “shows the dire economic situation for indigenous people in Latin America,” said Rosalinda Guillen, one of the survey coordinators.
She echoed an argument suggesting that an overflow of American goods—specifically corn—drove the indigenous from their lands after many could not compete with cheap goods from the north. Many were self-sustainable farmers, working small plots of land.
The survey found that around 18 percent of those who said Spanish was not their first language reported that they could not read or write in Spanish.
County sheriff’s deputies, who patrol the rural areas where many of the indigenous migrant workers live and work, also have had to adjust to the additional language barriers.
“You’d find somebody and they’d be speaking what you thought was Spanish, but you’d find that it’s something else that’s not Spanish,” said Skagit County Chief Deputy Will Reichardt.
The survey also found that nearly half of the workers say they don’t know if they’ll continue working the fields, citing sub-par housing conditions plagued by mice, cockroaches and lack of electricity or water.
“Recruiting and retaining a stable and skilled work force is becoming increasingly difficult,” said Brien Thane, trust executive director. “The survey makes it clear housing is a key factor in stabilizing and sustaining that work force.”
For the state’s key crops—such as apples and cherries—a lack of hands to pick would mean lost harvests. The state has already seen periodic labor shortages.
The survey reports 91 percent of those questioned said better housing would encourage them to continue working in the fields. They also detailed problems with current housing: 32 percent live in overcrowded units, 23 percent reported rodent infestation and others reported lack of heat and poor water quality.
Meanwhile, the Washington Farm Bureau is working on its own projects to provide housing.
[Editors Note: The full report “A Sustainable Bounty: Investing in Our Agricultural Future,” by the Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust, along with executive summaries (in English and Spanish) can be accessed here.]