Salal Pickers
Salal: César Chávez, Where Are You?
Harvesting floral greens started as a marketable enterprise in the Pacific Northwest less than one hundred years ago and experienced its first boom during the Depression of the 1930s. At that time, there were no permits — people just walked into the forest and started cutting. In 1952, a group of Caucasian brush pickers incorporated into the Brush Pickers Association, with a goal of raising their income. Anti-union efforts defeated the association, and it went bankrupt two years later. In the 1970s, Cambodian refugees found brush-picking a job that required little need for English-language skills. Twenty years later, Hispanics supplanted them for the same reason, while Cambodians developed more established relationships with Caucasian brush purchasers.
Most harvesters are single men or married men whose families await their earnings in their home country or nearby city. Many are undocumented (illegal aliens); they are hired to pick as sight-unseen groups of day laborers. Both Caucasians and more established Hispanics sometimes use their status against them; the fear of deportation is real and constant. "People are just here to work," says brush harvester Pedro in Southwest Washington. "It can be bad if a family is separated. I have everything set and can apply for citizenship any time. I am working on the residence of four kids, so I don't want to get involved in anything that could affect that process."
Unlike many wild-harvesting industries, salal is more blatantly controlled by the buyer, who is most often also the permit-holder. Disenfranchised Hispanics are at the mercy of the harvesting company — paying to be driven to a picking site; lacking insurance to cover the illnesses and injuries that are likely from the cold, wet conditions; taking what the company is paying. They can pick 150 to 250 bunches per day, and receive 70 cents to $1.75 per bunch-minus 5 to 10 percent for picking on company land, and 5 to 10 percent for the ride to the land. If a buyer drops a picker off at a site for which he doesn't have a permit, his choices are to not pick and make no money that day, or pick and hope he doesn't get caught.
Since harvesters have no decision-making influence, can't control where they pick, and because the work is so physically demanding that few can last more than five years at it, they have little incentive to care for an area and not over-harvest. "For me, we're here to work, nothing more," says Pedro. The Forest Service is trying to improve this situation by awarding 3-year leases and simplifying proof-of-permit, but more comprehensive improvement measures are needed.
In 1997, another attempt to organize wild-harvesters was launched: The Alliance of Forest Workers and Harvesters. This and other workers' rights organizations are listed in the Resources section.
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