Laid-off construction workers return to farm jobs

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.

At least two-thirds of construction’s labor force comes from Nicaragua, according to the Costa Rican Chamber of Construction. About 70 percent of the agricultural workforce is foreign, including some Panamanian indigenous migrants, estimated Jose Salas, human resources adviser for the Chamber of Industries, who has been keeping a close eye on employment figures since the start of the global crisis. The field manager reckons Nicaraguans make up at least 90 percent of the manpower for the sugarcane sector.

“Where are these workers going to go when the harvests end?” Salas pondered, saying the country could face a big problem when its flagging production sectors are unable to absorb the thousands of unemployed migrant workers.

Costa Rica's unemployment rate rose to 4.9 percent at the end of last year. That figure marks the first increase in three years, and some estimates have unemployment climbing to 8 percent in 2009.

So workers are increasingly taking lower paying jobs: the minimum wage for a builder is 7,018 colones ($12.50) a day, while a field worker is required to earn only 6,446 colones ($11.50). David Lopez, 31, who migrated to Costa Rica with his family when he was just 2 years old, said he’s content making about 35,000 colones ($62.50) a week on average cutting cane.

If the trend persists, one sector’s unemployed could be another’s source of hope. Cantaloupes, for example, could certainly use the laborers. In the last two years, cantaloupe growers have lost half their production — from 12,000 hectares to 6,000 hectares — largely due to harsh rainy seasons and a labor shortage, said Eliecer Araya, head of the National Chamber of Melon Producers and Exporters. It remains to be seen if the shift will boost production numbers.

One coffee plantation manager said it’s easy to spot some construction workers in farm clothing.

“We noticed from the first day some of the new workers were no experts in picking coffee beans,” said Guillermo Ramirez, who oversees pickers in Aquiares Estate Coffee plantations, which lie on the fertile slopes of Turrialba Volcano. “We talked to them and said ‘listen, you’re picking really badly, you’re taking lots of green ones, leaves too, and you’re hurting the plants.' And they would say, ‘it’s because I’ve never picked coffee, I’ve always worked in construction.’”

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