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Laid-off construction workers return to farm jobs

As building boom stalls, more look to lower-paying farm work they once shunned.

GRECIA, Costa Rica — Will the slowdown in Costa Rica's economy lead to more cantaloupes? That might just turn out be one unexpected consequence of the ongoing global economic crisis, as workers there migrate back to agriculture from the previously booming construction business.

A growing number of Costa Ricans are now toiling in the nation's verdant fields of cantaloupe, coffee beans, sugarcane and other seasonal produce.

The country appears to be on the verge of a new trend, forced upon laborers by the economic downturn. Following a major construction boom, many projects are stalled and workers, both native Costa Ricans and migrants from neighboring countries, are increasingly taking lower-paying farm jobs.

“We’re having to turn workers away for the first time in years,” said a sugarcane field manager who would not give his name or company because some of its migrant laborers work without permits.

He said this is not a pattern of builders trading in their trowels for machetes they’ve never held. Most of them are former field workers coming back to the land. “Construction robbed us of our workers,” he said. “It boomed really fast, and offered work year round, and more money.”

Indeed, from December 2007 to September 2008 — before employment numbers plummeted — the number of employed builders grew nearly 30 percent, to more than 77,000 from just over 60,000.

But about 90 percent of the 150 building projects that were set to launch in late 2008 and early 2009 — most planned as hotels along the Pacific coastline — have stalled since credit froze and investment slipped away, said Jason Alvarado of the Costa Rican Chamber of Construction. From last June until this January, the construction industry shed about 16,000 jobs, many of which were lost in the last four to five months.

Forty-year-old Zacarías Amador and his 26-year-old nephew, Carlos Aragón, originally from Chinandega, in western Nicaragua, can’t find construction work anywhere in Costa Rica.

“I’ve ridden my motorcycle up and down the whole area looking for construction work, and nothing,” Amador said.

Meanwhile, the number of agricultural workers — usually bused in specially from Nicaragua for the harvest season to offset a labor shortage here — swelled by 5,000 from December to January. Farmers say it’s no coincidence. Without construction jobs, Nicaraguan migrants are moving from harvest to harvest, picking up what work they can get. Many are heading back home.

In a normal year, the field manager said, he would have to visit rural areas of Nicaragua and recruit as many as 350 workers to cut cane in the company’s plantations January through April. This year, the farm needed to recruit less than half that. Nicaraguan migrants, he said, who in the past had worked in the field were back knocking on the door after the cooling construction sector froze their projects.