Stanford Accused Of Exploiting Migrant Farm Workers
STANFORD, Calif. (AP) _ Impoverished migrant workers crammed into wooden shacks on one of America’s most beautiful college campuses are at the center of a dispute over who’s legally responsible for their misery.
On one side of the wrangle is prestigious Stanford University. On the other is Webb Ranch, which leases 300 acres from the school and pays the migrants wages below the poverty line to pick berries and vegetables.
Webb charges 75 cents out of every hour worked for rent, so the more hours worked the higher the rent, said Reuben Serna, a spokesman for United Stanford Workers,the union representing 1,200 maintenance workers at the school.
The shacks are a half-mile from the center of campus and have no heat, toilets or running water. During harvest time, they are crowded with up to eight people who pay up to $1,600 a month for the space, Serna said.
The migrants have asked the United Stanford Workers to represent them. Earlier this week the union sent university President Donald Kennedy and the ranch a letter demanding recognition as sole bargaining agent for the farm workers.
Union attorney Jim Eggleston claims that Stanford, as the land’s owner, is the workers’ true employer under state law and is legally responsible ″for the shameful activity that’s going on here.″
″There are more illegalities, more exploitation of workers, more breaches of workers’ rights in this one plot of ground right here than we’ve seen in a long, long time,′ he said Wednesday.
Kennedy declined to comment on the issue, but Stanford attorney Priscilla Wheeler said the university isn’t responsible for the employment policies of its lessees or contractors.
″We would, of course, be concerned if any lessee violated the law,″ Wheeler said in a statement. ″So far as we know, Webb Ranch has not done so. If there are issues of mistreatment, we hope they are brought up with the state.″
Wheeler acknowledged that the migrants sometimes work on campus as contract workers, but said there is no basis for the union’s claim that the university is a joint employer with Webb.
If Kennedy and Webb refuse to accept the bargaining demand by Friday, the union plans to file a petition with the state Agriculture Labor Relations Board that could lead to a vote by the migrants on representation, Eggleston said.
Union officials said Webb receives $8.50 an hour for the contract workers, but pays them only $4.25 and pockets the rest.
Ranch manager Stanley Webb was not available for comment, his office said. Other ranch officials declined to comment.
Whatever doubt remains about the migrants’ legal employer, no one denies that their poor living conditions make a striking contrast to the campus 30 miles south of San Francisco, which covers thousands of acres and boasts elegant Spanish-style buildings and eucalyptus trees.
″I think this is a step backward in history,″ said Art Pulaski of the San Mateo County Central Labor Council. ″It’s somewhat reminiscent of the company towns, where the employers control people not only at work but at home after work. ... Stanford University is acting like a Third World employer here.″
Tibuecio Cabrera, 67, and his 58-year-old wife, Cointa Mendoza, are among up to 90 migrants - including as many as 20 children - who live in four wooden sheds with four rooms each. Only a few speak any English or read.
Cabrera and his wife have shivered through the winter with the warmth of only a small electric heater and some blankets. They have a hot plate to make tortillas, but there is no running water in their 7-by-8-foot room. Light comes from a bare bulb dangling from a wire tacked to a wall.
Cabrera’s last monthly pay receipt shows he worked 194 hours and earned $824.50. But he took home $514.86 after deductions for Social Security, unemployment tax, a $50 personal advance, rent and utilities.
Like the others, Cabrera received no health care, no holidays and no vacation. He said he had to use all his savings to pay for a stomach ailment and got no help from Webb or Stanford.
The camp has only one portable toilet and three indoor toilets with no partitions between them for both men and women. There is a communal kitchen with immovable metal seats for eight. Refrigerators are padlocked between meals.
″I sometimes get angry, but I have to comfort myself,″ Cabrera said. ″What else can I do?″
Eggleston said the migrants have long been afraid to speak out because they were illegal aliens from Mexico, but were emboldened by their protection under the federal amnesty program to ask his union for representation .