Some street corner fruit vendors victims of smuggling, exploitation
It’s getting to be summer, and that means fruits like strawberries and mangos are coming into season. In Bay Area cities, you don’t necessarily have to go to a grocery store to get them. You can find lone men, and sometimes women, on street corners around the region standing next to big boxes of fruit, gesturing to passing cars to come and buy some. The sellers often speak only enough English to complete the transaction.
So who are these vendors, and who do they work for? Well, some of them are in business for themselves, but as KALW’s Zoe Corneli reports, others are the victims of human smuggling and exploitation. And a note to our listeners, the names of vendors in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
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ZOE CORNELI: It’s late in the afternoon on a windy day in San Francisco’s Excelsior District, and Pablo Gonzales has been standing in the sun all day. Next to him are neatly-arranged boxes of mangos and strawberries, and mesh bags of cherries.
Every now and then, someone will drive up, ask the price, take a look and then drive off hurriedly, with a slight shake of the head. A few people buy some of the fruit. One woman sends her young son out of the car to pick up a flat of mangos, and then starts to drive away before realizing he’s still hanging halfway out the door.
Gonzales, the vendor, says the job is usually more boring. He’s been selling fruit since he arrived in this country two months ago. He was recruited to come here by a man he knew back home in Puebla, Mexico. Now he and seven other young men all live together in San Jose with that boss, who picks up the fruit from the growing areas down in Watsonville.
Gonzales says the sellers stand alone on a different corner each day. They can’t leave their wares to go to the bathroom, so they try not to eat or drink very much, and they’re paid less than minimum wage – about $250 to $300 a week.
ARNOLDO GARCIA: The migration process is really well-organized. And that’s a typical situation with migrant farm workers, different types of construction, services, it’s very well organized.
Arnoldo Garcia, with the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, says the employers are both giving the workers an opportunity and exploiting them at the same time.
GARCIA: In Spanish, in Mexico, we say, lo cortés no quita lo Moctezuma. In other words, courtesy doesn’t take away that you’re being exploited. And that’s it, it doesn’t matter if you’re smiling, and you say, give me a hug, big guy, I just paid you $10 for the whole day, you’re great. And then the guy is smiling, oh yeah, I’m great, and then of course he’s at the mercy of that person, right.
Garcia says that kind of arrangement can turn into indentured servitude.
GARCIA: It’s a very, very old relationship, in exploitation. They used to be called tiendas de raya, the company store, where people would work, and they’d have access to services, right, like food and all that. And they’d say oh, by the way, you didn’t make enough money this week to pay for all your supplies, so you owe me $50, and it builds up, and builds up, and you have a form of slavery that’s taking place.
PAT REILLY: An operation such as you describe would be really a smuggling operation, plain and simple.
Pat Reilly is a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. She says the vendors are completely dependent on the smuggler, who pays them low wages to work in harsh conditions.
REILLY: And they usually keep those people in those conditions under threat of exposure to law enforcement.
So the fruit sellers are under pressure from all sides: they’re exploited by their employers. They’re vulnerable to robbery and harrassment. But they’re afraid to contact the authorities for fear of being deported. They’re are also not very popular among some law-abiding produce sellers. Again, Pat Reilly:
REILLY: If part of somebody’s business plan is to hire illegally, so that they can have substandard working conditions and wages, then that’s not fair to the person across the street, who’s selling the same product and complying with the law.
One such person is Kayren Hudiburgh, who’s been a co-owner of The Good Life Grocery in San Francisco since 1976. It’s a small neighborhood shop on Potrero Hill that sells free range chicken and organic dairy. Workers here get health benefits and are paid more than minimum wage.
KAYREN HUDIBURGH: We have two kinds of strawberries in the store right now, organic strawberries in a one-pound clamshell box and conventional strawberries. We do give people a choice, because there’s a price difference. This is a one-pound box of organic strawberries, it is $3.25. Here’s the conventional strawberry.
That’s $2.25 for a pound. Street vendors have those prices beat, though not by much. Despite the competition they represent, Hudiburgh says she sympathizes with the street sellers.
HUDIBURGH: You know they’re trying to make a living. And these are tough times for everyone. I think I’d rather see someone on a street corner trying to sell strawberries than on a street corner with just a cup out.
The fruit vendors don’t seem to be attracting much attention from city authorities. I called the San Francisco and Oakland police departments to see if they’d had contact with the vendors. In Oakland, patrol officers are too busy with violent crime to check on fruit vendors. San Francisco police stations sometimes get calls about the sellers, but the complaints are usually for things like blocking a driveway or sitting on a car. Officers try to resolve the cause of the complaint – but not much more than that.
Immigrant rights advocate Arnoldo Garcia says the fact remains, these vendors are providing something people want: easy access to cheap, fresh fruit in convenient locations.
GARCIA: And the thing is that you’re going home and you’re thinking about dinner and a dessert, and you see someone on your corner, oh strawberries, that’s a good idea, and you stop and buy some and you know you’re getting a good deal, so you do that.
Back in the Excelsior, vendor Pablo Gonzales says he doesn’t expect to be in the US very long. Maybe a year, or a year and a half. He says if a better work opportunity comes up, he’ll take it. But when asked what such an opportunity might be, he’s at a loss.
He says if there is another job that will pay more, or that will be easier, he’ll try to get it. He says it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as there is work.
In San Francisco, I’m Zoe Corneli for Crosscurrents.