Far from home: The migrant worker experience on a central Kentucky farm

Republished from WEKU.

Throughout the year Kentucky sees a transient workforce that calls the Commonwealth home. The seasonal migrant workers participate in a variety of jobs.

The debate about how to address immigration when it comes to the United States continues and will likely do so until Congress acts some day. That’s one issue, but separate from that are those workers who come to Kentucky to do various jobs under the proper framework. Jennifer Reynolds represents the tenth Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council District, which includes the Cardinal Valley area. A large number of Latinos live there. Reynolds said she has gotten calls.

“My office, over the years, has received some complaints from migrant workers about how they are being treated and the work that they do..the lack of compensation, the long hours, lack of accountability if something happens on the job for them being taken care of,” said Reynolds.

Reynolds noted sometimes migrant workers are paid what might be considered a low wage so that a product can be sold at an affordable price or to achieve company profits. The Council member added seasonal worker paperwork can be difficult.

“For me the biggest challenge when we’re dealing with migrant workers is it is very hard to get them the documents that they need in order to be able to have a legal status while they’re here,” said Reynolds.

The drive down a gravel path alongside a barn at the Webb farm on the Fayette-Clark County line. There some way back is Ben Webb with four Hispanic workers plowing and planting tomatoes.

“It’s been pretty good for us, in terms of reliability alone, but as well as always having people out here who are ready to work and it’s always nice to have people who have a smile on their face and a lot of these guys are always in good spirits they’re happy to come out here and have a job every day and be able to work and provide for their family,” said Webb.

Webb said about a decade ago he and his father Benny Webb got connected with the H-2A program. The federal program allows employers who meet certain regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Webb said local help was becoming less and less reliable. The central Kentucky farmer noted over the years solid relationships are formed with migrants.

“I work with them about every day, sometimes ten-12 hours a day and work shoulder to shoulder so I mean they become family at some point and, like I said, I’ve know Hector for ten years now. I always tell him he’s the grandpa cause he’s a year older than me. So, I’ve got a good relationship with him and like I said he’s become like a brother to me,” said Webb.

Hector Pineda Ruiz is from Puebla, about four hours south of Mexico City. Coming back to Kentucky each year for some ten years, Pinedo Ruiz said he couldn’t ask for anything more with this work.

“I’m very lucky to have this job here because I don’t have to worry about, you know, Mexico we have good jobs too, but for farmers..not much. So, we have to leave our country for a better life and give a better life for families,” said Pineda.

The crew from his hometown stands typically at about six to seven men. Some return while Pineda Ruiz said four to five new workers may come and sometimes there is a loss along the way.

“But some new guys I don’t understand why they skip out because the opportunity we have here with Benny it’s very good we’re making 15.14 cents an hour. But, it’s all clean you know,” said Pineda

Benny Webb says when you add in housing, utilities, transportation including back and forth to Mexico, it amounts to about 22 dollars an hour. And Ben says working through Homeland Security, each worker is screened and taken through background checks.

Stu Johnson

Webb Farm Migrant Worker Crew

On this day, Hector was overseeing three others prepping for the tomato crop planting. In his second year, Luis Alvarado Lopez said it’s a different experience in Kentucky and that tobacco is not grown back home. Roberto Cabrera says doing different jobs is part of the experience. In his first year, Mario Moreno said technology makes a difference.

“Spanish response….He says the difference is machines. You guys in America have machines to do everything much easier. Like this what we are doing right now, in Mexico we might take all day long,” said Pineda Ruiz.

Benny Webb said when these workers head home they rent a trailer and take back home a variety of things, all in a way boosting the central Kentucky economy.

The connection on the Webb farm has worked well over the years. But, there is a place for workforce training in some situations. Chevene Duncan-Herring directs Kentucky Farm Worker Incorporated, which connects migrants with training and other services. Duncan-Herring said for some, it’s about work off the farm.

“They’re getting their CDL’s as well as getting lineman training and getting jobs, working with the transportation companies as well as some of the electric companies and cable companies,” said Duncan-Herring.

Duncan-Herring said the program, funded through the federal Department of Labor, works only with U.S. citizens. In some cases, she said participants consider starting up their own business, which might still be in ag.

“We also see a lot that are gaining opportunities in the entrepreneur sector and learning more about the business component of the agricultural sector,” said Duncan-Herring.

Duncan-Herring said this all enhances economic development in the state. The Kentucky Farm Worker program serves about 115 migrants a year connecting with community colleges. Duncan-Herring said the overall goal is simple—to stay employed, to take care of themselves as well as their families.

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Originally published by WEKU.

Republished with permission.