Braceros, redux

A California strawberry grower illegally employed guest workers without offering jobs to locals, required kickbacks, housed the workers in substandard conditions, and cheated them of wages. Sounds like the stories from the 1950s, when labor, religious and civic groups fought to end the Mexican guest worker program, which enabled growers to bypass local workers in favor of cheaper braceros, who were easily exploited and had little recourse to complain.

But it’s actually a Watsonville grower in the 21st century, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, which sued Gonzalo Fernandez and Fernandez Farms this week for $2 million – half in back wages for 400 workers, and half in penalties. According to the Labor Department, the violations were “egregious” during 2010 and 2011, and included paying less than minimum wage and demanding a $1,600 kickback from each worker.

Some things have changed. During the bracero program, which ended in 1964, farmworkers were not covered by the minimum wage law.


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