Commentary: Farm workers need raise for OT

California's multibillion-dollar farm industry would be a shadow of itself without seasonal and migrant farm workers. In the course of any given year, some 400,000 to 600,000 such workers pick produce and engage in other farm chores across the state.

If you savored some California-grown fruit with your breakfast this morning, it probably got there because of a migrant farm worker. Delicacies such as strawberries can't be harvested by machine. It takes nimble hands, and lots of them at harvest time, to pick many fruits and vegetables.

Farm laborers have long been California's most easily exploited work force. According to a 2005 survey of 2,344 farm laborers by UC Davis, 96 percent spoke Spanish. Only one in 10 spoke English. Three-fourths of those surveyed said they earned less than $15,000 a year. More than half were undocumented — illegal immigrants.

It is against this backdrop that Californians, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, should consider a bill that would require normal overtime pay to farmworkers for the first time.

Such laborers are the only hourly employees in California who are exempted from state labor laws requiring overtime after eight hours of work in a standard 40-hour workweek. Current law requires overtime for farm laborers only after they've worked 10 hours in a day or 60 hours in a week.

A bill on Schwarzenegger's desk — Senate Bill 1121, by Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter — would end that exemption, which was written into law in 1941.

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