Workers report that they are paid $ 7.25 per hour, when in their country they earned less than that per day.
With crops in danger of being lost due to lack of labor, some farmers imported Mexican workers to Puerto Rico, a US island with rampant unemployment but where receiving the bonuses for the pandemic is more profitable than working the fields.
At Finca González, in the municipality of Guánica in the southwest of this Caribbean island, a group of Mexicans work in the packing plant; another washes the bananas and a third ties the tomato plants to the stakes.
“This is very nice. For those of us who are used to this, this is perfect ”, says Abigain Sebastián, 22, without looking up from the tomatoes she is tying quickly.
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“In Mexico, the most I could be doing is seven dollars a day at work.”
In Puerto Rico, on the other hand, Sebastián receives $ 7.25 per hour, which is the federal minimum wage in the United States.
“This money is a very stable aid,” says the young man. Wear long sleeves and a cap to protect yourself from the tropical sun.
For Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, $ 7.25 an hour is not enough, even despite an unemployment rate of 9.2%.
Less when, as a result of the pandemic, the unemployed in this unincorporated territory of the United States receive – as in the rest of the country – a weekly bonus of $ 300 in addition to the unemployment benefit.
This is the case of Juan Santiago, who lives near Finca González although he prefers not to say where he worked. He lost his job in February and, with it, his salary of $ 290 a week.
Now instead he receives $ 540 a week: 240 for unemployment benefits and 300 as part of the historic rescue plan signed by President Joe Biden on March 11.
“I’m doing better than when I was working,” Santiago tells AFP. “I would not earn that on the farm. The pay for farm employees is low. The bad thing is also the sun ”.
Like Puerto Rico, a handful of the nation’s 50 states, such as Texas and Pennsylvania, adhere to the federal minimum wage of 7.25. The rest impose mostly minimum wages of around $ 10, according to the US Department of Labor.
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Sebastián arrived from Mexico to Puerto Rico last week, as part of a first group of 21 workers from Chiapas brought with the H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers. Seventeen of them went to Finca González.
“With this I also help my old woman who is a single mother. I have a 14-year-old sister, ”says the day laborer.
“Logical so be it”
The economist José J. Villamil indicates that the labor market in Puerto Rico “is dysfunctional.”
Part of the problem, according to him, is because the Puerto Rican is a regional economy of the United States.
“Since there is a large difference in wages between the island and other states, it is relatively easy for a Puerto Rican worker to go to the United States and benefit from a higher salary,” he wrote in a column Monday in the local newspaper El Nuevo Día.
Another factor in the “dysfunction” is the bonuses from the pandemic, he says.
“Obviously, the appeal of working for $ 7.25 is lost and it stands to reason that this is the case,” the expert writes.
Héctor Cordero, president of the Puerto Rico Farmers Association, told NotiUno 630AM radio last week that 1,000 to 1,500 braceros are needed on the island and that the arrival of a group of Hondurans is being processed.
Carlos González, the owner of the 375-acre farm that bears his name, accuses his compatriots of “losing the culture of work.”
However, it recognizes that federal aid is not solely responsible for the flight of workers.
Puerto Rico was hit in recent years by two category four hurricanes and a series of earthquakes that aggravated the financial crisis that had been dragging the island for more than a decade.
And then, “with the pandemic, I won’t even tell you,” adds González.
As a result of this perpetual state of crisis, the population of 3.1 million fell 14.3% compared to 2010, according to the US Census.
“Everything kept adding up and there came a point where we couldn’t get a labor force,” says González, who grows vegetables such as bananas, tomatoes, onions and squash.
But “this situation is not current,” he adds. “It is something historical and it comes from our colonial situation.”