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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.

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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