Missouriís large Latino workforce is neglected agricultural resource
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic population in Missouri, with more than 100,000 residents in the state. Of those in the workforce, "a large portion of them, probably a majority, are involved in some aspect of agriculture," a University of Missouri Extension sustainable agriculture specialist said.
At a Jan. 7 workshop in St. Joseph, Mo., Jose Garcia will discuss the Latino labor force, a resource that presents employers and potential employers with both challenges and opportunities.
Garcia, a native of Bolivia and coordinator of the MU Community Food Systems and Sustainable Agriculture Program, said tens of thousands of Latinos work at Missouri farms and food processing facilities.
"Itís important for employers to accommodate the needs of the workers, and at the same time make sure the workers understand the employerís expectations," he said. "Ultimately, this will benefit the farm. Things that benefit the workers can increase productivity."
The workshop will be in conjunction with the Great Plains Vegetable Growers Conference and Trade Show, Jan. 6-8 at the Ramada Inn in St. Joseph. Topics at the conference range from cultivating and marketing specialty vegetables to figuring farm budgets.
"Employers face a challenge to understand and communicate with the Latino labor force," Garcia said. "Suddenly, a person or a whole family doesnít come to work, and the employer thinks, ĎWhatís going on with this person?í Then, he might find out theyíve gone to Mexico because of some family issue."
"It doesnít mean the workers are not committed, but they have different priorities, and the absolute top priority is the family," he said. "Sometimes they have a very long way to travel, so they might need not one week off in the winter, but three weeks."
The most glaring communications gap is the language itself. Employers, Garcia said, might mistakenly feel ignored by their workers. In one such case, the farm manager took Spanish classes and "was amazed at how the attitude changed among the workers. Even if the employer doesnít know much Spanish, the workers really appreciate the effort."
At the workshop, he will discuss language and translation resources in the Kansas City area, including labor-management-related Web sites with identical texts in Spanish and English.
Garcia will also address the issue of safety in the workplace. "These workers are exposed to certain risks, things like pesticide exposure and risk of injury. We want to make sure employers have the tools and information to create safe work environments."
Once again, he said, reasonable precautions bolster productivity. "A sick worker canít work, and some of them canít go to work when a family member is sick."
He will present a separate section on ergonomics, important in farming environments that traditionally call for stoop labor. "If they work bent-over for hours and hours, it will affect their health and productivity," he said.
The solution often requires new equipment, "and the workers arenít going to spend any money on that; it has to be bought by the employer," Garcia said. Nevertheless, the investment is a profitable one: "We can show the employers there are ways for the farm workers to do more work with less pain."
He expects a lively discussion of legal issues facing the Latino workforce, some of which, like the threat to withhold driving licenses from undocumented workers, have drawn national attention. "The driverís license is a big issue with them," he said.
Employers can often be of assistance to their Latino laborers, Garcia said. "Many potential employers arenít aware of the laws and regulations regarding non-American workers. Employers can help them apply for temporary work visas."
Latino labor is in high demand in many agricultural states, and Missouri must compete with those that are nearer the workersí homes and have larger Spanish speaking populations.
"Usually, housing is a big issue," he said. "They come on a temporary basis, and homeowners are sometimes reluctant to rent to them for just a short time. The houses are usually crowded because the workers want to save money and send as much home as possible."
In places where non-American workers have long been an essential economic component, "Some big companies and ranches provide housing, and that can be a real incentive," he said.
Workshop registration is $35 and includes admittance to the conference trade show, lunch and workshop materials. A limited number of scholarships are available. For more information about the Great Plains Vegetable Growers Conference and Trade Show, log onto: http://www.oznet.ksu.edu/horticulture/Upcoming_Conferences/welcome.htm. Or, telephone MU horticulturist Lewis Jett at (573) 884-3287 or Buchanan County Extension specialist Tom Fowler at (816) 279-1691. For information about the Latino labor force workshop, contact Jose Garcia at (573) 884-3794.
Garcia will conduct other workshops about issues involving the Latino workforce. A Feb. 17 workshop is planned in Malden, Mo.; another is scheduled for Feb. 23 in Springfield. A central Missouri workshop is planned for March.
Source: Jose Garcia (573) 882-3794