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Immigrants boycott US salad bowl

The US Labour Department estimates that about 53 per cent of the nation's agricultural workers lack legal documents.

india Updated: May 02, 2006 13:55 IST

Illegal immigrant Ray Martinez pays taxes, shops at local stores and works 12-hour days in this rich farming region known as America's Salad Bowl, where about 75 per cent of the nation's lettuce grows.

Like thousands of his fellow farm workers in California's Salinas Valley -- some here legally, but most not -- Martinez stayed home on Monday as part of a nationwide boycott to demand a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and to protest legislation that could brand them as felons.

"This will hopefully give us the opportunity to get legal status," said Martinez, a 26-year-old Mexican who does back-breaking labour on an organic farm for under $7 an hour.

"We pay taxes and do important jobs that others don't want to do," he said.

The US Labour Department estimates that about 53 per cent of the nation's agricultural workers lack legal documents -- though labourers and union organizers say that number is closer to 80 per cent in the Salinas Valley.

The United Farm Workers union has long tried to organize workers in the region made famous in John Steinbeck novels. Only 96 km long by 8 km wide, the region grows lettuce and broccoli year round, making its $3.4 billion farm economy an important source of food for the nation.

"You see the vegetables in the shops. Who is going to pick them?" asked Jose Hernandez, who has legal status and works on a mushroom farm. "If the companies say they need papers, who is going to work the jobs? Nobody."

On normal weekdays motorists driving down Highway 101 can see groups of workers hunched over in fields, wearing colourful bandannas to shield them from the hot California sun.

Instead, the fields were empty and thousands marched through Salinas, carrying signs saying "We are not criminals, we want work with freedom." Many waved American flags and cheered as motorists snarled in traffic honked to show their support.

Oscar Jimenez, 53, said he grew up as a migrant worker and now works in the semi-conductor industry in Silicon Valley. He brought his two sons to show them that his family's story was similar to many here struggling to forge a better life.

"We are here just for a better opportunity," he said. "The message is we are not criminals, we just want to work."

The issue also marks a rare occasion where growers and the union agree and many employers gave their workers the day off. Jim Bogart, a spokesman for the Grower-Shipper Association, agreed the overwhelmingly Latino workforce fills critical jobs nobody else wants.

"If those people were suddenly unavailable it would have a devastating impact," he said.

Paid for what they pick, workers can earn around the state minimum wage of $6.75 per hour, allowing them to send crucial remittances to their families in Mexico. Many turn to the black market for fraudulent documents to find work, which means they end up paying income tax.

A recent study by the American Farm Bureau Federation said a crackdown on illegal labor could cause production losses in US agriculture of $5 billion to $9 billion in the first one to three years and up to $12 billion over four or more years.

"We just want to take care of our families," said Jose Antonio Salinas, who came from Mexico 24 years ago without documents and now works legally on an area farm. "We should have the same respect other people have."