Braceros wait for wages they're owed from decades ago
Oscar Serna is still waiting for wages he is owed from working in the farm fields of California and Texas more than 70 years ago.
Serna was 16 when he came from Mexico and was hired under an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico governments to work in the fields, where he picked oranges and grapefruit. Now 90, he already has started to forget things, but he remembers this: The governments put 10% of their paychecks in “savings funds” without the workers’ knowledge.
Serna and about 36,000 other elderly migrant laborers are still waiting to be reimbursed by Mexico, even though a court settlement was approved 21 years ago.
Sick with prostate disease, Serna knows he doesn’t have much time to keep fighting for his lost wages.
“Our money was stolen, what are we going to do?” he said. “They haven’t given me anything. They owe me my money.”
Serna was part of the Mexican Agricultural Labor Agreement, known as the Bracero Program. While American soldiers fought in World War II, about 4.5 million Mexicans were brought in to temporarily work in U.S. farm fields and railroads. The bilateral guest worker agreement between Mexico and the United States lasted from 1942 to 1964.
At least $32 million was deducted from the workers’ wages and put into Mexican savings accounts under the labor agreement. The promise was that the workers would receive their money once they returned to Mexico. Many of the workers couldn’t read and were unaware of the deductions.
“The deal between the two governments was that they were going to discount the tithe as an incentive for them to return to Mexico at the end of the contract and the Mexican government would disburse them the withheld money,” said Professor Gaspar Rivera, Director of Academic Projects at UCLA’s Center for Labor Research and Education.
“Now, many elderly men are still waiting for their reimbursement, he said. “That illustrates the tragedy of the braceros who were part of an exploitative program.”
All of the braceros are now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and many are sick like Serna, who is torn between life, poverty and ignominy of the country where he was born.
Sitting in a plastic chair in the front yard of his son José’s house in San Bernardino and leaning on a mesquite cane, Serna said he suffers from prostate problems and has a catheter and bag for emptying his bladder, but cannot afford doctors. Born in Huatusco, Zacatecas, he is still undocumented; he never wanted to apply for US residency.
“The first time I came to the United States, I crossed the Rio Bravo a la brava [illegally],” he said. “Then I was hired to work at the field.”
The bracero program guaranteed workers a minimum wage of 50 cents per hour, insurance and safe, free housing. However, farm owners frequently failed to live up to these requirements. Housing and food routinely was well below standards, and wages were not only low, but also frequently paid late or not at all.
In 2001, the braceros filed a class action lawsuit in the Federal District Court in San Francisco against the governments of the United States and Mexico, along with Wells Fargo Bank, where the money deducted from their paychecks was deposited and then transferred to the National Rural Credit Bank of Mexico. The U.S. government and the bank were later dismissed as defendants.