Friday, May 19, 2006

How much does a migrant earn?

This is hard to quantify. It depends on the circumstances. A single migrant won't make so much money if he works in the fields only. He'll make some money, don't get me wrong, but not as much as a family would earn by working together. A single migrant is better off working in factories of some sort. Some factories will pay for housing and transportation to and from work, leaving groceries as the migrant's only expense. Obviously, working alone, a migrant would earn money at an hourly rate. Realistically, with overtime, a migrant can earn around $2000 a month or more, depending on experience. This year, for example, Del Monte is paying between $6 to $9 an hour. Overtime is certain during peak production. Effectively, with the top pay rate, a migrant can gross about $3000/month.
In the fields, it gets complicated. In some jobs, like onions, you get paid 50 cents a sack. A sack consists of two buckets (the taller ones, not the 5 gallon) of onions. It's not so bad when the onions are huge. Sometimes you get fields where the onions are puny; that makes your heart sink. If you can manage about 100 sacks, you make about $50 daily. But that's really busting your butt alone. A family can do more than that, obviously, and will earn more money. I saw some families get around 200 to 250 sacks per day. When you take into account that work generally starts right at sunrise as the dew is evaporating and ends around 5 PM, 10 hours, you see that migrants don't make that much money in onions on their own.
Tomato, in some places, pays by the basket. You fill up your basket and take it to the truck. They will give you a token. Later, you cash in your tokens. I don't know how this works, we did tomato so long ago. When we worked in the tomato in the RGV, we paid the farmer $100 to let us fill the back of our pickup. Then we went to stores around the valley to sell the tomato.
I did have a chance to work in the pickles. This is different from the onions in that with onions, you harvest a field once. With pickles, you harvest a field for a few weeks. That works more like contract work. You choose your area, with enough work to last you a week, because you need to give the cucumbers time to grow. Pickles are paid differently. You get paid by the pound according to the size of the cucumber. The smaller, jar-sized pickles pay the best. When you take in your pick for the day, the farmer runs it through a sorter that separates the pickles by size and drops them in boxes by size. Up in Wisconsin, there are several pickling plants around. The farmer also sells cucumber. If they are too big, the farmer just throws them out or feeds them to the cows. There are plenty of cows in Wisconsin. Again, a single worker doesn't really earn as much money. A family stands to make more money.
Migrants do other work as well. In the fields, there is cabbage, asparagus, tobacco, and other stuff. Corn, obviously, is harvested by machine, so no migrants are needed. Early in the season, there is work planting the crops. This is pretty cool. A few people will sit behind a tractor on seats that have a rotating planter. You put a box of seedlings next to you and put them in the planter one by one. The contraption then plants the seedling in the ground evenly as the tractor moves forward. Somebody walks behind to make sure that the seedling is covered with soil and to plant a seedling wherever there's one missing. This work is paid hourly. Another job that's available prior to the harvest is hoeing. You get your hoe and pull out any weeds. In the case of pickles, you have to take out excess plants too. The plant is a vine, so it spreads. If you have too many close together, they don't yield as much. Hoeing is also paid hourly, or can be paid by contract, depending.
Field work is hard. It can be backbreaking. The first few days just kill you. Everything hurts. After the first week, you grow accustomed to the soreness. Your back may or may not get better. Your legs and knees also share some punishment. Mostly, it's your back that suffers. We found that it helped to wrap a burlap sack around your waist to help relieve some of the soreness. I don't know how it works; it helps. The positive side, if you can say that, about such tough work is that you are dog tired by sun down. That is some of the best rest you'll ever have.
Working in a plant is not so backbreaking and may pay better, although you will be working 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week. The most difficult part of that kind of work is being on your feet all day. The biggest distinction between this work and being in the fields is that when you're in the fields, you really aren't supervised.  So long as you produce, nobody really cares what you do out there. Some people work in silence, others turn up the stereo in the car or truck. In a factory, you have a specific job and have to stick to it. If you're lucky, you can rotate to relieve the boredom in the factory. Most of the time however, you'll be performing the same tasks over and over.
Most migrants go up north, not to get rich, get real. They go up there because work is so abundant. Even if you have limited education and limited understanding of English, you can get a job. Generally, you bond, somewhat, with other workers and form a loose network. You call each other from time to time to find out where they are working and if there is more work available. This is odd for our culture. Mexicans don't generally trust each other, which is why they leave Mexico. But we do help each other find work. I can't explain why this happens. I imagine that networking has improved with the use of mobile phones. I haven't migrated recently, so I don't know for certain. In any case, the advantage of taking your phone number with you is that you can be found by your old friends easier, or you can find them. I'll ask some friends how helpful their mobiles are in finding work. In summary, migrants can earn good money for a short period of time. Some just earn enough to get by. Again, many migrants don't go up north to get rich, they do it because it's easier to find work and pays better than staying here in the Rio Grande Valley.

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