Teachers: A week on US farms better than month in J’can classrooms
Educators, other professionals earn big heading north for holidays
With little or no disposable income from his monthly salary after meeting his obligations, senior teacher Bancroft Mullings* has spent the past four summers working as a labourer on farms in the United States to shore up his earnings. A specialist...
With little or no disposable income from his monthly salary after meeting his obligations, senior teacher Bancroft Mullings* has spent the past four summers working as a labourer on farms in the United States to shore up his earnings.
A specialist educator at one of Jamaica’s traditional high schools and boasting more than 17 years’ experience in the profession, Mullings travels to North America during the summer break, which coincides with the start of the tobacco harvesting season in the east-central region, which is also dominated by flowers, apple and vegetable farms, some which facilitate walk-ins to fill vacancies.
“You just go to the office and tell them that you need work. If there is a vacancy, you are hired immediately,” Mullings explained. “The wage you earn depends on the minimum wage in that particular state. Normally, if there is no vacancy, they will recommend another farm.”
Mullings is one of many Jamaican teachers and other professionals who use their vacation time to travel overseas to work on farms and take up other temporary menial jobs to supplement their income.
Although not part of the official farm work programme run by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, they have no problem finding work on farms in Canada and the United States because of the constant need for labourers.
Without hesitation, they gladly take the risk to work as undocumented workers, they say, because what they earn during those few weeks far exceeds their monthly salaries in their respective professions back home.
Mullings said this summer he worked for six days weekly on a farm in the US, earning US$15 per hour for a 14-hour workday, or US$1,260 (J$190,121.40) weekly.
He earns a monthly salary of roughly $180,000 as a senior teacher in Jamaica’s classroom.
“All the teachers and other professionals I know who do this earn more in a week over there than what we take home in a month at home,” Mullings told The Sunday Gleaner shortly after he landed in Montego Bay, St James, just in time for the start of the new school year.
“The challenges in the education sector are real and the opportunities to teach abroad are tempting because the worst working conditions in the States (US) are better than what exists in Jamaica. But I was never interested in leaving Jamaica for any long period, so these short-term stints are perfect for my situation,” he added.
On the farm, Mullings’ day is spent cutting tobacco, which is then loaded on to a tractor and transported to a barn.
“When you show up for work, you are paid for your hours in cash,” he explained. “There is no formal payment structure involved. You clock out, collect your cash, and that’s it. No questions asked.”
However, not much provision is made for the temporary, undocumented workers. Portable toilets are in the fields most workdays. If not, workers have to be creative.
“We know the risks and what to expect, but it’s worth it. It is a seasonal thing,” he said. “There is a core group of about nine persons who are permanent workers, while the rest of us are just employed to harvest the product over the two months.”
Housekeeping, landscaping, farm work, caregiver to the elderly and nanny services are some of the popular hustles sought by Jamaican professionals during their holidays, Mullings said, revealing that he knows several persons who are part of this informal structure.
“In Miami, you can get employment from the operator of any one of the beach properties to clean up the beach, put out beach chairs, and attend to the needs of the patrons, but most people avoid the states with a low-wage floor,” he said.
‘PATRIOTISM CANNOT PUT FOOD ON MY TABLE’
Another educator, Casmine Rodgers*, spent her summer break in Wisconsin for the past three years, where she earned US$18 per hour working in a fast-food restaurant for 16 hours daily, except on her Sabbath.
“Most of the time, we are short-staffed because very few Americans seem to show an interest in this kind of work, but it works to my advantage because I am going to put in the hours to make as much as I can,” she shared with The Sunday Gleaner.
Rodgers, who also returned to Jamaica just in time to resume her teaching duties, earned a weekly pay of US$1,728 (J$260,737.92) at the popular US fast food franchise – more than J$100,000 higher than the nearly J$160,000 she earns monthly in a Jamaican classroom.
“I am willing to work hard, but when I can work for five weeks and earn the amount of money that I would be paid in eight months, it forces a rethink of your plans, because things are very difficult for us as teachers,” she said.
“Wisconsin is one of those carefree states. Jobs like this seem to be meaningless to many locals, so people take it for granted, but I am sure if they had to face what we face as teachers in Jamaica, their attitude would be different.”
Mullings and Rodgers are now a week into their teaching jobs for the new academic year, but do not anticipate any significant change in their working environment.
“I went to teacher’s college because I could not afford to pursue my dream of becoming an architect, but I have no regrets,” Mullings shared. “I will approach this new term as I have done over my 17 years – I expect nothing, so I am not affected by the Government’s heartlessness.
“One thing I can say is that college did not prepare us for the realities of the teaching profession.”
However, Rodgers is unwilling to commit herself to Jamaica, hinting that it is just a matter of time before she makes a permanent move to greener pastures.
“Patriotism cannot put food on my table. I think I will be heading upstate in my next move, but it will have to be a teaching opportunity, because I cannot see myself out of the classroom for too long,” she stated.
*Names changed to protect identity.