Contracted farmworkers walked off the job near Shafter Friday in protest of a move by Kern County grower Wonderful Citrus lowering the price it pays for harvested mardarins.
Hundreds of workers chanted "Si se puede!" (Yes we can!) and some held up signs saying "Precios Justos" (fair prices) after learning early in the day that the company, part of Los Angeles-based The Wonderful Co., had reduced its rates by almost 10 percent in some cases, from $53 per bin to $48.
"Workers showed up and they were told the price was $5 less than the day before," said United Farm Workers Secretary-Treasurer Armando Elenes. "At the end of day, Wonderful, they’re not so wonderful Halo mandarins," he added, referring to the product's brand name, Halos.
He said most workers are able to harvest no more than 1½ to 2 bins of mandarins during an eight-hour shift.
Mark Carmel, a spokesman for Wonderful, said the company was disappointed by the protest by contracted workers in the Shafter area off Highway 65. He said the price reduction resulted from the company's seasonal transition from harvesting clementines to mandarins, both of which are marketed as Halos.
"This season, due to the smaller size of the clementines, we paid a premium for harvesting and we’re back to paying regular wages for mandarins," spokesman Carmel said by email. "We are confident we will quickly resolve this matter."
Wonderful, one of Kern's largest agricultural employers, recently announced it was raising its minimum wage to $15 per hour. But as workers employed by third-party labor contractors, the workers who protested Friday do not work directly for Wonderful.
Gustavo Aquino said he would be satisfied if the price just went back to $53 a box.
"We need the same price, and that’s all," he said. "The work is hard. It doesn’t make sense how hard you work compared with what they're paying. They need to pay the right place."
Leonardo Solano said he doesn't believe Wonderful Citrus is treating the farmworkers right in this case.
"We’re really angry about this. We don’t like what they’re doing to us," he said. "The price they’re giving us isn’t fair."
Solano said the price per bin needs to be increased on a regular basis, as the cost of living increases for workers.
"Each year, (the cost of) food goes up, rent goes up, gas goes up," he said. "We have people driving over here from Porterville. People have to pay for baby-sitting. We're not earning enough. It’s tough for people."
Solano said he believes the price should be between $55 and $60 per bin.