Employment Practices that Combat Exploitation of Migrants

Gregorio Billikopf Encina
University of California

In a call, a grower expressed frustration that his employees were earning too much. "I have been thinking of reducing what I pay per grapevine from 22 cents per vine to 19," the grower rationalized. Based on current research, I explained that the piece rate should not be diminished, that half his crew was apt to leave—the better half—and the other half would never trust him again. "I was just putting you to the test," the grape grower retorted. "I reduced the piece rate last week, and half the crew already left ..."

The 1998 Santiago [Chile] Summit of the Americas (SOA) Declaration reaffirms the human rights of migrant workers and their families. The best practices described in this paper fall within the realms of two of the SOA Declaration seven-item plan of action: Item 3 (adopt effective measures, including the strengthening of public awareness, to prevent and eradicate violations of human rights) and Item 6 (subsection, protection of migrants from becoming victims of exploitation and abuse).

While much of the focus of the action plan is on legal issues protecting migrant workers and their families from discriminatory treatment, and providing treatment that affords such individuals a measure of dignity and human rights, the focus of this paper is on employment practices that combat the exploitation of migrants while on the job itself. For the most part, the issues discussed go beyond a legal framework, and instead concentrate on the implementation of effective management practices.

There is a long and often adversarial history between those who seek to protect migrant farm workers and those who seek to defend the people who provide work for them. The interests of migrant workers have been presumed to be incompatible with those of the growers, producers, and farm labor contractors (FLCs) who employ them. This antagonistic view has sometimes hurt both farm employers and farm workers in the past. The objective of this paper is to share research findings that show that employers have much to gain from sustainable management practices. That is, that successful practices are based on the premise that farm worker and farm employer must both benefit in the long run.

The University of California (UC) Agricultural Personnel Management Program (APMP) was established in 1981, through an augmentation to the UC budget. There are similar programs in other Land Grant Universities, each designed according to different needs and resources. Whether or not directly articulated, it would be fair to say that all of these programs have this sustainable goal in common: the importance of providing farm employers tools that will make for improved short and long term relationships with their employees; and that result in positive outcomes for both.

In this paper I will share four specific examples of best practices based on my recent research, and a brief summary of educational efforts. At the same time I wish to acknowledge colleagues in and out of the University of California who have likewise made monumental contributions to these important goals, as well as to items in the SOA Declaration action plan.

Employment Best Practices Research

1. Overturn the ingrained myth that workers have a specific dollar amount they want to earn, and that if a farm employer pays more, workers will simply quit sooner.

Many farmers have hypothesized that workers have a certain earnings goal for the day. Once this goal is achieved, they reason, workers will go home. Under such conditions, a pay increase may result in workers reducing their hours. Economists would explain this phenomenon as the income effect: increases in income allow those in the work force to take more time for leisure activities. But economists also speak of the substitution effect: the greater the wages, the more a worker has to forfeit by engaging in leisure time. These two forces compete, and other mediating factors, including worker preferences, can also affect results. Because wages are influenced by a farm employer's understanding or beliefs about worker behaviors, the results of this study have important policy implications at the farm level for those who make decisions about how to set piece-rate remuneration. If the pay differential between piece-rate and hourly paid work is not enough, farmers may be inadvertently contributing to one of the reasons why incentives sometimes fail to bring out increased worker performance.

In the San Joaquín Valley during the summer of 1993, 510 seasonal farm workers in 15 crews were interviewed. Respondents were surveyed while they engaged in crew work, either hoeing tomatoes; thinning peaches or picking cherries, peaches, grapes, melons or tomatoes. Of the 448 workers who had ever been paid on a piece-rate basis, only a few of the respondents (3%, n = 14) had left work after reaching a wage or production goal for the day. An additional 11% (n = 49) of the respondents also had left early, either from time to time or regularly, but for altogether different reasons. Two key motives offered for leaving early were (1) getting overly hot or tired [F1] and (2) not making a sufficient wage (for example, low wages per unit of work performed or not enough to pick). In either case, these workers were generally willing to stay longer if the earning opportunities were greater. Finally, a number of workers explained that infrequently they might leave early to take care of special needs, such as medical visits or other appointments.

It appears that the substitution effect plays a greater role in seasonal farm worker motivation than the income effect. Perhaps the most obvious reason for this phenomenon is that farm workers need to maximize their earning opportunities when they can be fully employed. For most migrant workers, leisure time is a luxury that they cannot afford to take until a time of year when there is no work.

Summary: The data from this study indicate that those who hire farm workers may generally increase piece-rate wages without fear of having workers leave early. In fact, according to the respondents, lower wages were more likely than higher wages to lead workers to an early exit. Farm workers who collect unemployment insurance benefits when off work will also profit from high earnings when they do work. Generally, the greater the worker income received during work periods, the greater the benefits received when unemployed.

2. Proper understanding of piece-rate management can reduce mistrust between farm employers and migrant workers, and instead yield productive outcomes for both.

When properly managed, piece-rate pay can result in enhanced wages for crew workers and increased productivity for growers. Despite the potential benefits of piece rate for both employer and farm worker, crew workers in a 1995 study were evenly divided between those who favor hourly pay and those who prefer piece-rate pay. Worker concern for what they call "piece-rate games" played a key role in the unexpectedly low preference for piece rate.

Workers are sometimes paid on a piece rate, but may earn no more than when paid by the hour. A worker described how on a previous job he had been offered $1 per box of apricots picked. When he picked 100 boxes for the day the rate was suddenly changed to 50 cents per box. Although this is outright illegal, many other games are more subtle and although not always illegal, just as damaging to the migrant workers and to the trust relationship between farm employer and migrant worker. "If we are making too much on piece rate we are told to also weed and that reduces our earnings," one farm worker protested. Another suggested, "Four years ago I could really earn more money by the piece. The next year they reduced the rates. That is why piece rate is no good."

A prominent California vineyard employer recently called in frustration: "We have an employee who is earning $45 per hour by the piece! We must be doing something wrong!" Fortunately this grower called before making the change. I was able to explain that $45 per hour for the best employee was not out-of-line. In previous research I had shown that the fastest farm worker in a crew was capable of four to eight times the performance of the worse. When one considers the minimum wage, at the time $5.75, which is what the slowest worker would make, and then multiply that by eight, it comes to $46, essentially what this pruner was making. I congratulated this grower, "Your pruners have shown they trust you!"

A sub-set of this piece-rate game issue, is making sure that workers are told ahead of time what the piece rate is. A crew worker was frustrated with agricultural employers who don't specify, up front. "They wait to see how the day comes out," he explained. Workers soon realize that increased performance translates into lower rates per piece. This worker pleaded, "Tell them not to do that." When talking to the farm employers, they have the mistaken view that the workers trust them. Yet, workers are hesitant to give their all when they fear that piece rates are not firm. Another migrant worker explained: "If I knew what I was being paid by the tree thinned, I would have already finished this long row and would be on my way back."

Summary: As a result of this and related research, a set of ten recommendations to help farm employers protect migrant workers when paying by the piece rate were developed. Farm employers are beginning to understand that they should think more in terms of how much they are saving per acre by paying by the piece, than by how much employees are making when their earnings are translated into hourly wages.

3. Workers prefer growers over FLCs, yet they are more likely to work for FLCs. Helping FLCs become better employers can benefit all stakeholders.

Among those who had experienced working under both a FLC and a grower, there was an overwhelming preference for growers as employers (81%, n = 84). Only 4% of crew workers favored working for FLCs. The remaining crew workers either had no preference (14%, n = 14), or said their choice would depend on other factors (2%, n = 2).

Some crew workers were vocal in denouncing FLCs: "They should eliminate FLCs," "FLCs are despots," "Burn FLCs' licenses," "I wish FLCs did not exist," and "FLCs prefer undocumented workers they can abuse." In contrast to FLCs, growers are perceived as providing superior pay, benefits and working conditions; treating workers better; communicating instructions more clearly; and providing extended hours of work per day and per season.

Yet FLCs have several advantages including less of a language barrier and the potential for providing longer hours of work beyond those required at any one farm operation. A series of nine recommendations for FLCs were developed as a result of this 1995 study. Perhaps the foremost challenge that remains is that of pay and benefits. After all, if an FLC is going to make a living, he or she must also receive a salary for the service contributed in recruiting and managing the workforce.

In the Northern San Joaquín Valley over 70% of crew workers are hired by FLCs. For FLCs who are willing to learn from these lessons, there is hope. Not all FLCs were looked at in a negative light. One FLC was highly praised by his crew workers in terms of both treatment and pay. Those who worked for this FLC rated their jobs high (4.4 average on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 meant the job was excellent). One enthusiastic crew worker said, "This contractor is excellent! He is a five. Write it down!" Another FLC was remembered with fondness by a crew worker. "I had a good contractor who treated me well and gave me $200 so I could get legalized."

Summary: There is an overwhelming preference by farm workers for growers over FLCs. Nevertheless, farm workers, especially migrant workers, are more likely to be hired by a FLC than a grower. Anything that can be done to help FLCs improve their human resource management skills will do much to change the negative light in which they are often regarded, as well as enhance the quality of life of those who work for them. FLCs, in turn, will be more likely to be able to attract and retain farm workers.

4. Mayordomos often become supervisors by being pulled directly from a crew with little training on interpersonal communications and supervisory skills. Foremen and supervisors can benefit from learning how to better work with migrant workers.

Farm foremen have one of the most demanding jobs in agriculture. They are mediators between the needs of farm workers and farm employers, they have an enormous amount of authority over those they supervise, which they use to motivate and discipline farm workers.

Since this study drew from over 2000 years of combined work experience in the fields, it is not surprising to have found some serious problems. Crew workers reported that some supervisors constantly push for faster work or carrilla (slang derived from the Spanish words carrera, race and correr, run) . Several workers drew examples from previous jobs: "Some expect that we don't even talk to other employees [when paid by the hour]," a worker explained. Another witnessed a young woman who was not permitted to go to the bathroom even though she was ill. The woman ended up vomiting in the field.

Another worker who requested a break after hours of exertion was refused with the comment, "Why do you want a break? Chavez is dead." A female supervisor insulted some of the men who worked for her by questioning their masculinity. Another supervisor told a woman, "You must be a really good cook!" "Not really, why do you say that?" she inquired. "Because you certainly are no good as an employee," he retorted.

Although these and other horror stories were collected, these situations were not the norm. In fact, farm workers felt generally good about their jobs as well as those who supervised and employed them. Workers value supervisors who, by word and action, show they are no more important than those they supervise. One supervisor earned much respect because he was willing to get his hands dirty and "treat himself as a working person."

Farm workers nevertheless identified a number of key areas where supervisors could improve. These included such areas as respect, constructive criticism of job performance, reasonable work pace and the need for clearer instructions and better working conditions. A set of eight specific supervisory recommendations were developed as a result of this study.

Summary: While farm workers have generally positive feelings for their supervisors, and about their jobs, there are specific areas related to interpersonal communication and work conditions that would make their jobs better.

Employment Best Practices Education

The message—about the utilization of sustainable human resource management practices—has been getting out to thousands of farm employers and supervisors, both in English and Spanish. This has been done through meetings, newsletters, articles, the Internet, radio and television.

Farm employers have been willing to pay for the information, and to both attend seminars and send their foremen to multiple-day workshops. Farm journals have increasingly picked up articles on agricultural human resource management. A book, Labor Management in Ag: Cultivating Personnel Productivity (1994) was sold out December 1999. An updated version is now available on the Web, along with research articles, popular articles, and a labor forum. Several hundred academics, consultants and practitioners have requested a hard copy or downloaded the Instructor’s Manual for teaching agricultural human resource management. The combined English and Spanish Websites received over 25 thousand hits between March of 1997 and March of 2000.

Educational topics directed at both farm employers and foremen have included conflict management (mediation between workers who do not get along), negotiation skills (interest based negotiation agreements rather than traditional positional, competitive or zero sum resolution to disagreements), power and abuse of authority (including the avoidance of sexual harassment, favoritism, and discriminatory practices), interpersonal communications and listening skills, supervisory and delegation skills, employee selection, pay and incentives (with an emphasis on protecting employees and gaining their trust), performance appraisal (how to view performance needs without resorting to blaming), as well as farm safety and labor law.


Billikopf GE. 1994. Labor Management in Ag: Cultivating Personnel Productivity. Web edition, 2000.

Billikopf GE. 1995. High piece-rate wages do not reduce hours worked. Cal Ag 49(1):17-18.

Billikopf GE. 1996. Crew workers split between hourly and piece-rate pay. Cal Ag 50(6):5-8.

Billikopf GE. 1997. Workers prefer growers over FLCs. Cal Ag 51(1):30, 32.

Billikopf GE. 1999. Farm workers positive about their jobs, but suggest improvements. Cal Ag 53(1):33-36.

F1. Howard Rosenberg, UC Berkeley labor management specialist is presently the lead investigator conducting a study on the effect of worker hydration. Do farm workers drink enough water during the day to maintain a physiologically sound level of body fluids? Could use of a light, insulated water delivery system make a significant difference in water intake, worker comfort, and productivity? Both employers and workers are potential beneficiaries of this study.


Gregorio Billikopf Encina is an area labor management farm advisor within the division of Agriculture & Natural Resources. Billikopf is the author of the book, Labor Management in Ag. Gregorio has been a frequent national and international speaker in the field of agricultural labor management, and has given presentations in Canada, México, Russia, Uganda and his native Chile. Research and teaching emphases have been in the areas of employee selection and testing, incentive pay and pay issues, conflict resolution, employee discipline, performance appraisal, worker motivation, supervision, negotiation skills and interpersonal relations. The Agricultural Labor Management Website contains the complete book and research articles at http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/ . For more information call (209) 525-6800 or E-mail gebillikopf@ucdavis.edu .

[A summary of this paper was presented at the April 26-28, 2000, State Department sponsored meeting, at UC Davis. The theme of the meeting was "Best Practices To Protect The Human Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families in the United States." The purpose was to "assist the US Department of State to fulfill its 1998 Summit of the Americas (SOA) commitment to coordinate the implementation of the migrant workers section of the Santiago [Chile] SOA Declaration." For more information on the meeting, contact Phil Martin, at UC Davis. Summaries of presentations can be found at Rural Migration News. Many worthwhile presentations were made, but one of particular interest to me, was an innovative Agricultural Labor Disputes Mediation Program developed by the Oregon Department of Agriculture.]

© 2000 by The Regents of the University of California and Gregorio Billikopf
Agricultural Extension, Stanislaus County. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher and the author. Printing this electronic Web page is permitted for personal, non-commercial use as long as the author and the University of California are credited.

Table of Contents

15 November 2004