Agriculture chief: ‘No work culture’ in PR opens door for foreign farm labor

By John McPhaul

Designated Agriculture Secretary Ramón González Beril said Thursday in a radio interview that in Puerto Rico there are many people who do not want to work in agriculture, although there are jobs available, a situation that has attracted foreigners to work in the island’s fields and groves.

“There is no work culture here, to a large extent due to the multiple [forms of public] assistance, the conformism that has become widespread in many parts of the Puerto Rican people,” González Beril said on the program “Pegaos en la Mañana” on Radio Isla, with Julio Rivera Saniel. “After you’ve earned a certain amount of money, that’s enough. As much as 25 percent of agricultural workers are missing; there is no commitment. We have crops that are perishable, that must be harvested, when they must be harvested, otherwise they will die on the vine. That is the reality.”

“The reality is that $7.25 [per hour] is the minimum wage, that’s the least, if you are a person who is not very skilled, if you work on a farm harvesting,” González Beril said. “We are going to make the case that you are lazy, and you are going to cover the eight hours of work, you are going to have $7.25 per hour assured. If you work more, if you harvest more, harvest more onions, harvest more tomatoes, harvest more coffee, you have another adjustment fee, you will earn an additional salary.”

“You can earn $600 if you work on the farm. That’s the reality. The $7.25 [per hour] we are using as an excuse. Here the least you’re going to make is that, that’s the reality,” the Agriculture secretary-designate said. “But we do not have the culture, we do not have the work culture, because here the reality. … I would like to know, to what farm, to what business, an employee comes and says: ‘No, if you pay me $7.25 I will not work. Pay me 10 bucks.’ That is not the case. The fact is that they do not come.”

Meanwhile Farmers Association President Héctor Cordero said Thursday that the next influx of workers who will arrive in Puerto Rico to work in agriculture will be from Honduras.

“Honduras contacted us at the Association and they are very interested. Yesterday I had a meeting with the [La Fortaleza] chief of staff [Noelia García] and since all this has been private meetings that farmers are having, she asked us at the Association to help the Department of Economic Development [and Commerce], the Department of Labor [and Human Resources] and the Department of Agriculture to make some basic guidelines for this process,” Cordero said in a radio interview. “We have already contacted our counterpart in Washington, the American Farmers Bureau, to help us with the draft to definitively institute it until the Puerto Rican wakes up.”

“It is painful and to a certain extent it is shameful that a country like Puerto Rico that in 1900 took its labor as far as Hawaii and during the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s went out to pick tomatoes in the [mainland] United States, while today we have a generation that has grown up thinking that manna continues to fall from the sky, food is in the supermarket and money deposits itself in my bank account,” he said.

Cordero, a rancher, said it takes between 500 and 600 workers to address Puerto Ricans’ lack of interest in agriculture. He noted that workers from the Dominican Republic and Mexico have already arrived on the island.

He further argued that most farmers pay more than the minimum wage to avoid labor flight.

“In the milk sector my employees are [earning] almost $10 an hour, because they are skilled employees and above all they are difficult to recruit,” Cordero said. “And it is a strong policy, because when the price of milk falls, you have to comply with your [responsibility to your] employees. Here banana and vegetable employees are earning about $8 to $9 an hour, because they are skilled and responsible employees.”

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