July 28th, 2010
11:25 AM ET

Video: A day in the grapes

Gary Tuchman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Ismael Estrada
AC360° Producer

It's just before 6 a.m. in the California desert a little north of Delano. Migrant workers are showing up for another hot day on the job picking table grapes in temperatures expected to reach more than 100 degrees

Many argue that illegal immigrants come to the United States and take jobs away from Americans, but here not only are there no non-Latino workers, the labor contractor says not one has ever applied for this job... until today.

CNN Correspondent Gary Tuchman was among the workers today ready to put in a shift picking grapes that are then boxed and delivered to local grocery stores.

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Photojournalist Kevin Myers and I are with him to capture Gary's day in the vines. We called the United Farm Workers representatives to ask if Gary could spend a day working here and they agreed.

When we arrive, we immediately notice we are unprepared. People are wearing long sleeve shirts and have their faces covered with various scarves and long brimmed hats. We showed up in t-shirts and jeans.

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They tell us they wear the clothing to protect themselves from the heat and cover their mouths and noses to avoid breathing in much of the dust that can accumulate inside the vines.

As the day started, Gary was getting a crash course from other workers who have picked grapes here for decades. They were pointing out what should be picked, how they should be picked and what would remain on the vine for future picking.

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The grapes were placed into large white containers and taken to another worker to sort them and place them in plastic bags to be boxed. Gary was handed some pruning scissors and told to get to work.

Workers here take this job very seriously. They get paid 8 dollars an hour before taxes and about 11 cents per box packed. They work in teams of 3 and Gary is teamed up with a husband and wife who have been working in vines like these for over 30 years.

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The workers laugh and make jokes at Gary's expense, as it's obvious he's a novice at doing this work. They take the time to inspect all of Gary's work to make sure the company's quality control supervisor who inspects all of the boxes packed for delivery rejects none of the grapes he picked.

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As the day presses on, it gets hotter and hotter. It's starting to become very uncomfortable, but you wouldn't know it listening to the workers laugh and sing while boxing up their fruit.

As Gary is working with his team, I talk with many of the other workers who tell me they're happy to be working. They say they have to earn as much money as they can now, because there are several months when the grapes are not in harvest and they won't be able to work.

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I ask them why they come here to work and they speak of poor wages and conditions in Mexico. They say that while they only earn 8 dollars an hour here, they'll make that in an entire day working in the fields in Mexico.

Many of them have children who were born in the United States. Some have gone to college and others are married and living productive lives here as U.S. citizens.

5 hours into the day the foreman calls for a lunch break. Gary appears out of the vines looking hungry and thirsty. After we finish the 30-minute break, Gary heads back to the vines with the other workers, 3 hours of picking still ahead of them.

One of the workers says this is the hardest part of the day, the sun is getting hotter and the shade doesn't do much for the heat. The temperature is now 102 degrees.

Gary is starting to catch on to the work, but admits the work is not only physically exhausting; it's also tedious and monotonous. As the day draws to a close, a large truck comes through the work area and starts picking up the boxed grapes. It's the end of a long tiring day and while many workers will be back here tomorrow, none of us could imagine doing this every day.

Filed under: Gary Tuchman • Immigration • Ismael Estrada
soundoff (133 Responses)
  1. Bob

    Sorry he's full of it. I grew up in Turlock, CA just up the road from Delano. I worked in the fields, melons, cherries, peaches, whatever picking and /or swamping onto trucks,as did my cousins boys in the field girls in packing house a lot of crops come in in the summer there were a lot of foreign exchange students following the crops learning our culture and getting enough $ to move on. A lot were over 21, they'd buy us beer. I was 14 my 1st summer hardly made any money by 16 I was raking in $ and could keep up with the migrants as they moved. around, farmers provided housing and family members who could work did, family cultural thing . They drove some pretty nice cars and trucks. biggest problem wasn't heat it was peach fuzz

    July 30, 2010 at 1:04 am |
  2. Ken

    I don't think anyone can dispute that this is hard labor. Nonetheless, it still doesn't exempt immigrants from following U.S. law, nor does it exempt the farmer from hiring employees that are here legally.

    It would be nice if our government could revisit the work Visa process and U.S. Citizenship application process. I make the assumption that well intentioned immigrants would prefer to be here legally and not have to worry about being deported.

    July 30, 2010 at 1:03 am |
  3. Byrd man

    Has anyone stop to think about if the Native Americans had the force to stop the original illegal immigrants, i.e. the white European settlers, from entering this country many centuries ago, what kind of country would this be? Fair is fair unless the privileged is soley leading and making the laws.

    July 30, 2010 at 1:03 am |
  4. Stan, Vancouver WA

    I have no problem with migrant worker (farm workers) in US working in the field. But they don't have to bring their family and expect us tax payer to pay for their kids school, low income housing allowence, kids lunch program and such. Since they work in US and send money home anyway keep your family and kids at home. Those who are jumping fence are another story. They act as though they are a citizin of of this country and expect all the benifit of US citizenship.

    July 30, 2010 at 1:02 am |
  5. Kathy

    While I'll agree this is very difficult work. I do shame the owner of the fields for only paying these workers $8.00 an hour. The price of a bottle of wine made from these grapes, or the price of a pound of these grapes at a grocery store make these farm owners very rich at the expense of cheap labor, and no health care costs. This country views everything through the eyes of a dollar bill. I do believe that illegals need to monitored in this country, it should be much easier and quicker for Mexican workers to apply for and receive a work visa-they do work that I agree many Americans will not, but that is primarily because most Americans have a better education and want a better life-the same can be true for the children of these illegals who were born in the country and educated–I don't see them in the fields.While I feel sympathy for these workers, it should also be noted that the government of Mexico is largely at fault for not providing a means in which thier citizens can earn a decent living–we give them mucho money–what do they spend it on–themselves- they want it both ways, and the ones who suffer are workers like this.
    On the other side however, if the UAW had people do this work, they'd be paid 30 bucks an hour-with all the perks and then some
    So again, I say, that unfortunately EVERYTHING boils down to money on all side of the issue

    July 30, 2010 at 1:02 am |
  6. Tony

    I remember having a mexcian friend while I was younger, I went with him and his parents to the strawbery field to help out. It was the first and last time I ever done that. Picking grapes maybe tedious and monotonous, try picking strawberry for 2.25 and hour plus a little commission on the box you packed. I even remember his mom holding his younger sister while squating and picking strawberry. It just didn't wore me out, it feels like my back was going to break from all the squating and bending over. I know Americans will never ever do those jobs and I'm happy that the Americans that know better is giving these people a chance to earn some money.

    July 30, 2010 at 1:02 am |
  7. Brian

    The author of this piece has wonderful intentions, but his thesis is not true. Americans will do this strenuous work, but unfortunately they will not do it for minimum wage. Americans would do the work if they got paid what they felt the work was worth. I would supposed that many Americans would engage in the particular work for $20 – $25 an hour, but certainly not for minimum wage. Now, one would think this would cause food prices to skyrocket. I used to believe this as well until I learned that most of the cost of the food we pay actually comes from things like packaging and transportation costs, among others. So, even if you tripled the amount of money you paid workers to pick lettuce for example, that same lettuce would only cost the consumer about 12-15 cents more per lettuce head. That is because all of the other costs needed to get the lettuce to the store would remain the same, and these other costs are a much higher percentage of the total cost of food than the cost of the field work.

    That said, I truly admire these migrant workers. Engaging in backbreaking work all day to make as much as they can. I can only imagine what life must be like for them in their home country, if they are willing to do this strenuous work for that little money. We are indeed very fortunate to live the country we live in.

    July 30, 2010 at 1:01 am |
  8. Jacob

    Very telling? The job pays barely more than minimum wage. The reason no Americans have applied for this job is because you're being asked to do physical labor in heat that kills some people in less time than the work day asks of you, and getting paid the same that a cushy, lazy mall job will pay you.

    Living in California, if I were asked to do this job, I'd ask 10/hr, minimum. Then I'd do it.

    July 30, 2010 at 1:01 am |
  9. Sam

    Great article, for all those who say illegal immigrants are stealing jobs, tell me, which jobs? This article is a great example of immigrants doing jobs most ppl wouldn't want to do. The side that is for increase legalization of immigrants has set an example. Now its time for the side that is against to show some evidence. Can any of you who are against immigrants show any proof that isn't a statistic pulled from thin air?

    July 30, 2010 at 1:00 am |
  10. Gregg

    "Finally, someone telling the other side of the story. This is real journalism, a rare thing these days."

    The other side of the story? You've got to be kidding. The only side of the story being told by big media is the pro-immigrant side. They have been cramming stories like this down our throats since SB1070 first passed. None of the media elites live in Arizona so they have no clue about the crime and the costs of illegal immigration and they have no desire to report on it objectively because to do so might damage their agenda.

    "Real journalism" my fanny, this is politcal advocacy desguised as journalism, a very common thing these days.

    July 30, 2010 at 1:00 am |
  11. Marcus

    What a humbling article.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:59 am |
  12. beasterdamas

    I'd pick grapes on my own property...I would...

    July 30, 2010 at 12:59 am |
  13. Christian

    Great Story. We are all immigrants. Socialism is protecting lazy Americans who do not want to work. Capitalism is allowing everyone to work and let the best grape picker win!

    July 30, 2010 at 12:56 am |
  14. samantha

    There are migrant workers who are legal and also people who apply to come to america to work again legally, we are talking about ILLEGAL, how ignorant can you be. Illegals do take away jobs, and if you are such a sympathizer of criminals, then put down your address so they can come live with you.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:55 am |
  15. Don

    Our food industry would not collapse without illegal aliens. Fruit and other foods would cost what they should given a fair market cost of labor.
    Has anyone considered that food companies are simply profiting from below market value labor? It's interesting that the same people who defend illegal aliens right to undermine fair market value for labor also scream about "fair trade" when they buy coffee. Fair labor market only matters when it's someone else's country? It's OK to flood the US market with cheap labor? How is that fair?

    July 30, 2010 at 12:53 am |
  16. Casper83

    Interesting article. However it leaves out one important part. Americans will not do that job for $8/hour. However they will do it for $12 or $14 /hour. So the whole premise that Americans are not willing do that job is incorrect. They are unwilling to do that job for that pay. Let immigrants go, the wages would rise and you will find plenty of Americans who are willing to do this job. Of course the other side of the story would be the grapes would become really expensive. I guess that everyone would have to live with...

    July 30, 2010 at 12:53 am |
  17. Marko

    More liberal propaganda from CNN.com

    Make everyone legal! Open borders!!!

    July 30, 2010 at 12:53 am |
  18. Leonore H. Dvorkin

    Thanks, Mile in Dallas. You are so right.
    If you are an American citizen willing and eager to work for $8/hr in 100-degree heat, then go for it. Go apply. Otherwise, quit bashing these good, hardworking people who endure these hellish conditions with good humor and pride in the job they do and help put food on our tables - that we then eat at our leisure in our air-conditioned homes and offices and restaurants - for historically low prices (low compared to total income, I mean). YES, if we did not have this low-paid labor, we would all be paying a LOT more for food. However, even with my husband out of work right now, I have to say that I WOULD be willing to pay somewhat more for food to give these people better wages and conditions. / dvorkin.com

    July 30, 2010 at 12:52 am |
  19. Franklin Bryant

    Hello, stop protecting illegals, American people will do these jobs, we have made it for years until employees started protecting and hiring illegals which is illegal!!!

    Thank you,
    Franklin Bryant

    July 30, 2010 at 12:51 am |
  20. Richard

    That's some hard work with low pay. I wouldn't do it.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:51 am |
  21. Matt

    Here's a story.. Will an illegal immigrants job position be replaced with a willing and able american citizen who applies for the same position, at the same pay rate. My guess is no!!

    July 30, 2010 at 12:50 am |
  22. Jed

    Illegal is still illegal.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:50 am |
  23. Kirk Coburn

    Very self-revealing story. I have admiration and respect for migrant workers for coming here and working hard to earn a living doing a job that most wouldn't last a day. Unfortunately many of these hard working immigrants are taken advantage of. (E.g. they have state and federal income tax withheld from their paycheck, but it is never reported by the business owner, thus the business owner reduces payroll by 6.2% for social security, 1.45% for medicare, and also no need for business owner to match this since all workers paid under the table).

    July 30, 2010 at 12:50 am |
  24. Linda Bonaldi

    Not only have I worked in the fields, but my mother and father and grandparents as well. My parents worked as migrant farm workers long before there was an immigration problem. When they started working in the fields, the immigration problem was about "Okies". My son would work there as well, but being "white" he is outnumbered and soon loses his job to a "friend" of the group working. It's not that Americans won't, but they are pushed out. Don't tell me that we won't do the work. We can and we have and we still are.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:50 am |
  25. Suze

    Gary Tuchman won't be back because he has a good job. He might think twice about it if he was unemployed. I'd like to see a profile on the very first day a migrant worker spends in the field. I'll bet he/she would be hot, tired, sore, and not looking forward to coming back either. Difference is...the migrant worker needs it more than Gary. I am a white American who may be losing my job soon, and I truly have considered working in the fields because I know I can do it. I may not want to do it, but I'm willing and able.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:49 am |
  26. violinjim

    Americans don't want to work. Haven't we figured this out all ready? If we cut the welfare, perhaps Americans would be willing to work for this wage but until we stop giving out taxpayer's money to those that chose to not work, we need the migrant workers and should embrace them. Very likely food production in the US would cease if it weren't for the Mexicans. Go ahead and pass the immigration bill, I support it, but be willing to WORK for a living and pay the consequences.


    July 30, 2010 at 12:49 am |
  27. Dave (A.K.A. Homebrew)

    I have done this work, though not in California. Here in Arkansas, many American citizens do this work, for around the same wages. Of course, the cost of living here is much cheaper.

    Dave (A.K.A. Homebrew)

    July 30, 2010 at 12:49 am |
  28. bobsnuffy

    I've worked this hard for $5 an hour in Christmas trees in zero degree heat. It's just as hard. My cousin just got back from Iraq where his hourly wage came out not much better than minimum wage, and it was hotter there than in CA. This article is just another propaganda video to glorify illegal aliens. It says all these great things about them and completely igores all the negatives about them. This article has a HUGE liberal bias and is clearly designed with a political agenda, not facts. This guy never took an econ class or is ignoring the fact that the Mexicans are depressing the wagesand taking jobs. One of the few (maybe only) negatives from deporting them ALL would be slightly higher labor costs and prices.... far offset by the positives. Gary shame on you for putting down the American worker like this and only telling part of the story.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:49 am |
  29. Angie

    I just moved to a farm in Wellton AZ, no one pick's fruit or vegies this time of year. But I do see the tractors working at night. Right now in AZ it's cotton and hay all picked by machine. Also when they were picking I would count 30 labor's. I am going to get a CDL license so I can drive the tractors. I WILL take a job from an Illegal. Oh CAlifornia is broke, maybe cause Anchor kids got a Free education. And Carlos Slim (Mexican Billionaire buy's more property in NYC. We are in Debt and Mexico is invading and buying OUR country.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:48 am |
  30. josh

    Why would american workers want these jobs. They make more drawing unemployment, food stamps, and welfare. If they were cut off from these "beneftis", do you think they would roll up their sleeves and work these jobs? No, they would complain that there are no jobs. As long as the United States encourages people not to work by giving them freebies, there will always be a market for illegal aliens.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:48 am |
  31. Sheila

    Great article – but it's missing a few things. I live in Washington State. I've seen cases where farm workers are staying out in the open air at night (often whole families, including children) – rain storms and all. There are no hotels near some of these farms, they are in the middle of no where. And even if there were, the workers can't afford them. Often there are no restrooms available. Also – a few years back there was an article in my city paper that the workers had to bring in their own drinking water – there was no drinking water available out in the fields and the farmer didn't provide it. (See the United Farm Workers web site for the current story of a pregnant 18 year old farm worker who died while working from dehydration). You should have taken the article farther – spend some time travelling and seeing more farms, especially remote farms. Tell us how these people are doing and how they are surviving after hours. We benefit greatly from their work – we owe them a lot of respect.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:47 am |
  32. Rob

    Does the American economy only work if there are poor immigrants to exploit?

    July 30, 2010 at 12:47 am |
  33. avi

    Five Star for Gary Tuchman. Tell it the way it is.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:47 am |
  34. Shel

    The illegal immigrants in this story are not taking American jobs; they are taking the place of slaves. This is exploitation.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:47 am |
  35. pat

    The humongous flaw in your logic is of course, the wage these people are being paid. Americans get up every day and work jobs in hotter and worse conditions. I know this for a fact as I have seen it throughout my life.I am not a tea bagger and I feel that immigrants make us stronger as a nation but lets be honest here. Americans are not afraid of hard work they just demand fair compensation.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:46 am |
  36. Chris

    The fact is that this "labor" force is creataing a false low wage. If the wage were true to the work there would be plenty of Americans seeking the jobs.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:43 am |
  37. REB

    Ok, if this is true, then let us find out the hard way. We passed the laws, now let's enforce them – then the real truth will come out – if we are too lazy to do this work, then we are wrong. But, if American's take the jobs, the law is just. I worked in the fields along with the workers – who accepted the less than fair wage that the farmer was offering – because he could get by with it. No, the employers don't want to pay minimum wage and too many people ignore this reality.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:43 am |
  38. Melinda Wallace

    I am so sad that these workers are treated with so little respect. I hate the terms used, "illegals", "aliens", etc. These are some of the hardest working people in our country. I call them "Americans" because I think they have what it takes and I am ashamed that we treat human beings as second class, non-citizens when they contribute so much to our lives.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:43 am |
  39. Mariela

    I loved this story!!! Thanks!

    July 30, 2010 at 12:42 am |
  40. John

    Yes we might all be immigrants, but not illegal immigrants – now there is your facts and what really matters in this debate. Get in line to enter this country, like the rest of us did!

    July 30, 2010 at 12:41 am |
  41. Jennifer

    I live in Az currently and love this article. People believe what they want to. I don't believe that most Americans could or would do this work–thanks to the immigrants for their backbreaking labor–they should indeed be paid more. I have been floored at the things I have seen in AZ since I moved there 2 years ago. This SB 1070 law is a thinly disguised attempt at dehumanizing and ridding the state of Latinas (os) entirely. Insidious and hideous!

    July 30, 2010 at 12:40 am |
  42. tony

    All we ask is to be a legal immigrant.Follow the rule of law.It is that simple.Nonone should denie anyone from bettering themselfs but do it in a lawful manner.Became a" DOCUMENTED" worker. To drive I must have a drvers licence.Hello...

    July 30, 2010 at 12:38 am |
  43. Travis Seals

    We should be at war with Mexico. It is their corrupt government that doesn't address the issues that cause these people to INVADE our country! I say declare war today! (Oh and YES, I am being serious!)

    July 30, 2010 at 12:35 am |
  44. keithmoore1

    Interesting viewpoint, but this whole "they're only doing jobs Americans won't do" is nonsense. Most Americans can't afford to do this sort of work for $8 an hour, not to mention the hard work for the little pay involved. What happens when one of those possible illegal immigrants gets sick...any health coverage or workman's comp? Didn't think so.

    And many illegal immigrants are taking contracting and construction jobs that many Americans DO want to do.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:34 am |
  45. Nepal

    Anderson, This is what I call a real reporting. I am not an American but have lived there, studied there and worked there (legally). Every time I tuned to network news, I could not help but think am I getting the both sides of the story completely?. By far, you have done the best to bring out both sides of the coin on every issues and Hats off to that!

    About the immigration issue, It's very hard to tell. I was once an aspiring migrant. I lost my chances due to economic recession and I had to move back to my country. I personally think Bush's immigration reform plan would have been a better start to curb illegal immigration. The way its shaping up is , America won't sustain if the influx of illegal immigrants continue to move in. On the other hand, America will not sustain without these workers (skilled or semi skilled).

    Perhaps a more center line approach is needed to tackle this problem, but I think learning English for the migrants should be the most essential part of the solution.

    " I learnt English because I wanted to be an American!!!"

    July 30, 2010 at 12:34 am |
  46. Casey

    I'd do the job.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:34 am |
  47. JobsForMoney

    Americans WILL work for wages inflated when illegal counterpart workers are evicted!!!

    July 30, 2010 at 12:33 am |
  48. Stephen

    I used to have a job paying $9.50 and hour in a plastics factory that on a cool day would be 106 degress F My unemployment is run out and I cant find a job. Right now working in a field picking grapes for $8.00 and hour does not sound all that bad. If I feel this way I bet their are plenty of others that feel this way now.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:31 am |

    With 15 million people unemployed, I bet alot of AMERICANS would take these jobs.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:28 am |
  50. Jim King

    jon in oc, you are not living in the real world. If food prices rise 40% even more kids will go to bed hungry than do now. Americans would not do these jobs even at higher wages anyway. And kids doing lawn work, the amount of home work our kids have is triple what we had 25 years ago....to compete with the foreign students they have to study a ton. And every good college requires a boatload of outside things in the community and internships just to get in. And the immigrants do lawn work for elderly people too.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:28 am |
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