From Bakersfield.com, Jill Cowan, Californian staff writer, firstname.lastname@example.org, 30 Jan 2012.
In a move experts said is part of an ongoing trend, local fruit and vegetable grower Sun Pacific Farming Cooperative, Inc. will permanently lay off more than 2,100 employees based at its Bakersfield facility in favor of a seasonal workforce provided entirely by farm labor contractors. The layoffs will take place on or about March 12.
The company, which operates facilities in Kern and Tulare counties, alerted the county to the layoffs in a Jan. 12 Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act notice, as is legally required for employers laying off large numbers of workers.
“We don’t have a need to employ 2,100 people year-round,” said Sun Pacific Chief Financial Officer Toby Maitland-Lewis in an interview earlier this month. “What we’ve done is make a decision to lay off all of our seasonal employees, primarily because we don’t have the amount of acreage we’ve had historically.”
Maitland-Lewis said the uncertainty about crops from year to year, coupled with a decline in acreage — by 30 percent over the last three years — led to the decision to eliminate the permanent positions, which include harvesters, pruners, crew bosses and other workers associated with Sun Pacific’s table grape and kiwi farming.
“We feel that moving to farm labor contractors for seasonal (work gives us) more flexibility over the course of the year,” he said, adding that he sees the changes less as “layoffs” and more as workers “changing employers and it just doesn’t happen to be us.”
Already, Maitland-Lewis said, about 70 percent of its seasonal laborers at peak harvest times are employees of independent farm labor contractors, as opposed to permanent employees of Sun Pacific. The layoffs, he said, mean that number will be increased to 100 percent.
The shift toward hiring most seasonal workers through farm labor contractors, rather than keeping workers on a company’s payroll is hardly a novel phenomenon, said University of California Cooperative Extension Specialist Emeritus Howard Rosenberg, who has studied agricultural labor management for decades.
He said that when he looked at Salinas’ vegetable industry in the early 1980s, “most employment there was directly on (farmers’) payrolls.”
Since then, he said, he’s seen the proportion of the agricultural workforce hired by way of farm labor contractors increase.
“It has grown from the low 20 percents, to now over 40 percent,” he said, “and some people would say that it’s now over 80 percent.”
Rosenberg said going with farm labor contractors can help growers avoid “transaction costs for hiring and firing.”
He added that large farming operations require a lot of management and knowledge of different fields, so dealing with middlemen who are theoretically experts at “dealing with the complex regulatory environment,” is a way of outsourcing some of that burden.
Guadalupe Sandoval, managing director for the California Farm Labor Contractor Association, said the trend toward contracting out labor is, in part, a product of the current economic climate.
“I think that as the economy changes, you find (such layoffs) in a lot of different sectors of employment,” he said.
But what does it all mean for workers?
On one level, at least, Sandoval said laborers working for a farm labor contractor can actually extend an employment period.
“Some workers would rather have a longer period of employment than they might have with a grower that only has seasonal work for them,” he said.
Furthermore, Rosenberg said, having a “first-line” supervisor with whom workers move around to different jobs can create a more continuous employer experience.
Nevertheless, Rosenberg said, common skepticism among workers about farm labor contractors isn’t unfounded.
Among criticisms of the contractor system, he said, is the contention that “labor contractors are going to skirt the law more frequently.”
Another criticism, he said, stems from a provision of the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which doesn’t recognize a farm labor contractor as an employer, which has ramifications for collective bargaining rights.
“There’s a history of seeing farm labor contractors as paper entities that aren’t as independent as they really are,” he said. “They’re a mechanism for a grower to get some legal distance from employees.”
When, almost exactly a year ago, local grower Sun World International transitioned its field work to farm labor contracting firms, the United Farm Workers union protested the changes, saying labor contractors almost never offer health insurance, retirement or other benefits.
Maitland-Lewis said in Sun Pacific’s case, permanent employees do have health insurance. They also have retirement benefits, which will be preserved — though workers will not accrue any more after they are laid off.
Still, Rosenberg said, increased regulation for farm labor contractors means there are some “very large, highly professional labor contracting outfits” who want to “distinguish themselves from the fly-by-nights” that give contractors a bad reputation.
Ultimately, though, he said, “talk to 100 workers and I bet you that 70 to 80 of them would say they would rather work directly for a grower than a contractor.”