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Apple pickers seeking ‘prison pay’ turned away

YAKIMA (Nov. 4) — The State of Washington is getting paid good money — $22 per hour per worker — to provide prison labor in Washington’s apple orchards. But experienced farm workers, willing and eager to pick apples for decent pay, are being told they must work for minimum wage… or else take a hike.

What gives? That was the question posed by the United Farm Workers and the Washington State Labor Council at a news conference held Friday afternoon in Yakima.

This week, Gov. Chris Gregoire authorized prisoners from the Olympic Corrections Center in Clallam County to be sent to pick apples at a Wenatchee Valley orchard run by McDougall & Sons. The company, which told the state government it is desperate to find people willing the pick apples due to a shortage of migrant farm workers, is reportedly paying the state $22 an hour for each prison worker. The state says that money covers the costs of transporting, feeding and housing the prisoners, plus the cost of prison guards.

McDougall & Sons told these workers they would only get paid minimum wage to pick apples.

But on Thursday, a group of experienced farm workers applied for those very same jobs at McDougall & Sons and were offered only the minimum wage. The workers reported that they were shuffled to three different offices and each time they were offered just $20 per bin. Experienced apple pickers can pick three to four bins per day, if they don’t take lunch or other breaks. So at $20 per bin, they would make approximately the state’s minimum wage of $8.67. By law, even orchards that pay piece rates to farm workers must pay at least minimum wage.

Ironically, the same day newspapers across the state were running stories touting prison labor as a potential solution to a labor shortage in Washington’s apple orchards, a group of nearly 60 farm workers from the Tri-Cities were reportedly stranded in Mattawa after refusing to work for less than the minimum wage. The workers said they were bused to a Stemilt Grower’s Apple Orchard, where they were told they’d only make roughly $25 for about four to five hours of work. When they refused to pick for that amount, they say they were left there without a way to get back to the Tri-Cities.

Following is a WSLC statement issued at Friday’s news conference in Yakima:

The Washington State Labor Council strongly supports the United Farm Workers and their members in their quest to call attention to the gross inequity that these field workers receive in both pay and working conditions. The backbreaking work of picking apples produces 20 percent of our state’s economy, but the workers usually get no more than minimum wage – and sometimes, unscrupulous employers pay them even less.

The solution to making sure the crops are picked this year is not to bring in convicted felons, armed guards and other state workers to set up camps and cook for the prisoners.

The solution lies in ensuring that workers who are here receive a livable wage and get the respect they deserve. They need adequate pay so that they can feed their families and participate in the local economy. They need strong health and safety regulations set in place and enforced to make certain they can do this vital work without injury. And most of all, they need a political climate that does not attack them and portray them as enemies of the state.

Many of these workers come to Washington state from outside the country to pick this crop. But this year, because of the anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric, there aren’t enough immigrant workers to get our apples off the trees. We need a cohesive, smart, welcoming strategy to make sure that all workers get a livable wage and to make sure that our Washington state crops don’t rot on the vine while growers refuse to pay the bare minimum and leave workers stranded without work and without their dignity.

For more information, please email WSLC Communications Director Kathy Cummings.

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