Stephen Colbert and 7 others take farm jobs offered by UFW

Comedian Stephen Colbert reacts as he testifies during a hearing before the Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law Subcommittee of the House Judiciary CommitteeFighting the claim that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from Americans, the United Farm Workers Union of America offered its 1.8 million jobs back to American citizens. Only seven Americans took the union up on its proposal (that number doesn't include Stephen Colbert who spent a day picking beans and packing corn.)

Of the 14.9 million unemployed Americans, 9,000 applied for the UFW's "Take Our Jobs" program, but only seven have kept the jobs for at least several weeks working in the fields, said Arturo Rodriguez, the UFW president, in a telephone interview with WalletPop.

Other than those seven, the rest must have been discouraged when learning what hard work it is on a farm -- in the sun all day after rising early, getting their own transportation to the fields and doing back-breaking work for low pay and no benefits, Rodriguez said.

The hard work shouldn't be a surprise. The UFW web site warns potential farm workers that the job may include using hand tools, operating irrigation equipment, working outside in all weather conditions. Workers are warned it is physically demanding and requires carrying up to 50 pounds on a regular basis, and that duties may include tilling the soil, transplanting, weeding, thinning, picking, cutting, sorting and packing harvested produce.

Colbert brought national media attention to the issue last week when he testified before Congress on an AgJobs bill that would give undocumented illegal immigrants permanent legal status if they continued in farm work for three to five years and could prove they've been working in agriculture at least 150 days in the two previous years. Of the 1.8 million farm workers in America, about 75% are undocumented, Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez, who also testified before Congress, said he was happy to get Colbert's support. A recent study found that the criticism that immigrants are taking jobs from Americans isn't valid. In fact, agricultural jobs will leave America as more crops are grown elsewhere and immigrants are forced to leave the U.S., Rodriguez said.

"If we want to maintain agriculture in this country as we know it," then action is needed, he said.

Beyond the difficult work, the thing that may be holding people back from taking these jobs is the low pay. The average pay for a farm worker is $8.50 to $9 an hour, a little more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, Rodriguez said. But for the farm workers, the majority of whom are from Mexico, it's a lot better than the $6 a day they'd earn in Mexico, he said.

"This is still a much better position to be in," he said of low farm wages in America.

In California, where most of the country's produce is grown, the unemployed could take about 400,000 jobs from undocumented immigrants -- if they wanted the jobs.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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