By: Lawrence Crockett, Programs Clerk
Alleviating job-related stress factors is necessary in combating alcoholism among migrant and seasonal farmworkers. For pious non-drinkers, it may be easy to dismiss a migrant agricultural worker who enjoys a few beers after work as just another alcoholic; but doing so is not only stereotyping, but dangerously ignorant of all that goes with the job and how antithetical to our country’s democratic values some farm working jobs actually are.
In the normal American working world, eight hours of work for five days is standard and enough to qualify one as being a productive member of society. Sure, some Americans pull 10-hour shifts, 12-hour shifts, or doubles – especially in the medical field. With very few exceptions, however, workers are compensated for their overtime. Such is not the case for many migrant farmworkers, most of whom are Latino.
A 2007 study by the Society for Applied Anthropology found that it was not uncommon for farmworkers in Southern Chester County, PA to work anywhere between 60 to 80 hours per week harvesting mushrooms. The 4,400 migrant workers lived and continue to live in dormitories, positioned right next to the field, which serves to constantly remind them of the hard work looming just hours after a shift’s end. There, they wake up at 3 a.m., and the workday goes on until late. How late is late? Late enough to make for an 80-hour workweek, apparently. Eighty seems to be the magic number because the study concludes that up to 80% of Southern Chester County’s farmworkers participate in binge drinking on any given weekend, mainly as a form of camaraderie.
Several factors can contribute to binge drinking and alcoholism, but certainly working conditions among migrant farmworkers is chief among them. Indeed, so many emigrate to the United States in search of the American Dream – and toiling in the field without being compensated for overtime is a strange juxtaposition to what American citizens deem acceptable work conditions.
So, if a group of guys – removed from their respective home countries, wives and children – decide to have a few beers together after harvesting all day, all week, can you blame them?
Another study conducted by the Center for Worker Health at Wake Forest University confirms what’s already known about working conditions for migrant farmworkers: oftentimes, their jobs – (you know, providing the foods we eat) – contradict everything decent and humane as dictated by American ideals. In that study, Latino farmworkers were slightly more than twice at risk of becoming alcohol-dependent as Latino non-farmworkers. (Thirty-nine percent compared to 16%.)
Of course, the job itself isn’t the only contributing factor to alcoholism among farmworkers. These other factors have been explored by social scientists with varying degrees of success. In general, socially isolating a specific population from the rest of mainstream American society does not mitigate its drinking problem, nor does being thousands of miles away from your wife and kids for years at a time. It’s no excuse, but rather it’s reality. Interestingly enough, the Society for Applied Anthropology notes that binge drinking is less of a problem for migrant farmworkers when they’re home, with a stronger support network to enforce drinking norms. In laymen’s terms, it means: a farmworker from Mexico isn’t going to drink as much when he’s around his Dad, Mom, grandparents, neighbors, and the like. Nobody wants to be labelled the town drunk, after all. Instead, alcoholism is exacerbated when complete strangers live with one another, as necessitated by farm work in many states, and drinking is turned to as a mean to escape the plight of being a migrant – (and oftentimes undocumented) – farmworker. When looked at through this lens, in fact, alcoholism is not necessarily a disease, and the cases of beers are gone through not to escape or forget, but to remember – family, friends, one’s home.
In California, it will prove interesting in the coming years to see if there is a tangible correlation between alcoholism and migrant farmworkers’ compensation and job conditions. Recently, a bill was passed and signed into law (AB 1066) stipulating that any farmworker who works over 40 hours per week is entitled to time-and-a-half pay, just like workers in other industries are. While increased compensation may increase alcoholism among migrant farmworkers, it may equally as possible have the opposite effect. Giving migrant farmworkers fair pay may instill them with a greater sense of self-worth and dignity, and afford them much-needed resources to perhaps choose recreational activities other than drinking. It’s difficult to believe that a farmworker who works 80 hours per week on a flat wage will not have a dramatic change of lifestyle if he or she, for once, is compensated for his or her time-and-a-half.
Lastly, it’s deserves mentioning that migrant farmworkers are no worse than any other set of American drinkers and, in many cases, are encouraged to drink by American culture. The Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health calls this process acculturation, and concludes that most of the time, immigrants (Latino and non-Latino) “bring their drinking habits with them” when they emigrate to the United States. In almost all of these cases, the drinking habit is not as bad in the country of origin. The habit gets progressively worse as more time passes in the host country – that is, here in the United States. The same study cites targeted advertising of alcoholic beverages specifically toward Latino communities.
The issue surrounding alcoholism in rural farming communities is complicated with intertwining origins. Still, education and awareness about responsible drinking and health effects of over-drinking could greatly improve the health of farmworkers, avoiding future liver damage or other unforeseen health issues.