An apple tree orchard is pictured.
An apple tree orchard is pictured. - 
Listen To The Story
Marketplace

When you think of “salary negotiations,” picking fruit isn’t the first job that comes to mind. Individual farmworkers don’t control much about their work environments, but Eduardo Cruz says there’s a big range in what you can get paid to pick apples. “This year, I picked Honeycrisp for $42 a bin,” he says. “At other farms, they paid $35 a bin, or 30.”

These differences in pay depend on a host of variables that determine how easy it is to fill a 1,000 pound bin of fruit: the size of the trees, the slope of the orchard, the quality standards imposed by the grower. In Washington’s Yakima Valley, growers and workers alike say cellphones have helped spread this information faster, tightening the labor market and spurring on competition for the best "piscadores," or harvesters. 

Farmworkers have always gotten together to trade tips. Still, they often had to drive to far-flung orchards to find out who was hiring and what they were paying. Nowadays, most of these conversations take place via cellphone. “I’ve got a lot of friends, and we talk,” Cruz explains with a smile.

You ask a few questions about the job, get the foreman’s number, and if it seems promising, make the trip out to the orchard. Cellphones have reduced the “transaction costs” of looking for farmwork.

Grower Charlie de la Chapelle says that’s made the workforce more willing to move around: “And that’s a good thing, because if in fact we are short of people, and we have a good price, they call their buddies and they bring ‘em.” The flip side is that “you don’t know who’s gonna show up tomorrow.”

On Chapelle’s farm, workers picking Fujis have to sort the apples as they go, and the ground is littered with discarded fruit. This extra work means they can’t fill bins as fast, which can hurt their pay.

Orchard manager Art Thompson says he’s worried his crew might start looking elsewhere. “We’ve got a pretty steady crew,” he says, “but believe me, if I let ‘em make this wage all day, the cellphones will start being picked up.” This means employers have to be ready to adjust wages.

It’s basic economics: free-flowing information leads to a freer market. Researchers have made similar observations about cellphones across the developing world. Agricultural economist Philip Martin recalls one study of fishermen in southern India.”If you’re out in your little boat, and you’ve got a bunch of fish, you have more power to know which port to take them to, by calling the various fish brokers, and saying, ‘what are you paying?’”

 For low wage workers without much clout, cellphones have brought a bit of leverage.