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California's Harvest of Shame: 2012

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When temperatures reach into the high 90s or above, people often complain that they are "dying from the heat."

Yes, we're all suffering from the heat wave. But California's farm workers are really dying. These are preventable deaths.

Last week the temperature in California's Central Valley went above 110 degrees. Can you imagine laboring in weather like that with the searing sun beating down on you for 8-10-12 hours a day? Then try to imagine doing that hard work without water or shade. That's the situation facing California's farm workers.

The Fresno Bee recently reported that Maximo Lopez Barajas died last month while pruning in a pomegranate orchard. The Bee said that Barajas "collapsed in heat that exceeded 100 degrees that day." Erika Monterroza, spokeswoman for the state Department of Industrial Relations, said emergency crews were called and Barajas was taken to Coalinga Regional Medical Center, where he died.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. When a farm worker at Giumarra Vineyards, the largest table grape grower in the country, died of heat in 2004, the United Farm Workers union (UFW) began a campaign to end heat deaths. Since California issued its 2005 regulations to keep farm workers from dying of extreme heat, however, preventable farm worker deaths have continued to occur.

In 2008, for example, Maria Isabel Jimenez, a 17-year girl who was pruning a vineyard for Merced Farm Labor, near Stockton. She worked in the fields for nine hours straight without any water and no shade. After working under such brutal conditions, she collapsed. After delayed medical treatment, she was taken to a hospital several hours later and had a body-temperature of 108.4 degrees. Within two days, Maria had died.

Her case highlights everything that is wrong. The farm labor contractor involved had been caught before not providing water and didn't even call 911. The lopsided criminal justice system convicted the contractor with manslaughter but then sentenced him to "community service."

Just this summer, state regulators are investigating two possible heat-related farm worker deaths. In addition, many farm workers suffer from serious injury and illness due to the unrelenting heat.

But when Cal-OSHA, the state work safety agency, finds violations of its regulations, reports show that the state often does not issue citations, go back to recheck violators and make sure the violations have been corrected.

The fact is that the state simply just doesn't have the resources to adequately enforce its heat standards. According to an August 22 editorial in the Desert Sun, "Last year only 1,090 heat inspections were conducted on California's 81,500 farms. At that rate, many violations could go unnoticed."

Fortunately, the UFW has a remedy. It has sponsored two bills -- the Humane Treatment for Farm Workers Act (AB 2676), sponsored by Assembly member Charles Calderon, and the Farm Worker Safety Act (AB 2346), sponsored by Assembly member Betsy Butler -- that will allow farm workers to protect themselves.

The Humane Treatment for Farm Workers Act says that agricultural employers must treat farm workers at least as well as animals or face the same criminal penalties. (California law makes it punishable as a misdemeanor or felony for every person who fails to provide any animal with proper food, drink, shelter or protection from the weather). The bill has already passed the Senate floor and is on its way to the Assembly.

The Farm Worker Safety Act is likely to be on the full Senate floor next Monday. This bill will let farm workers enforce mandatory shade and drinking water requirements by taking delinquent employers to court. It will also make growers jointly responsible with farm labor contractors they hire to ensure that farm workers on their properties are given shade and water when temperatures soar. AB 2346 does not impose any costs on taxpayers.

Farm workers have long been the most exploited and vulnerable sectors of our population. John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath , vividly portrayed the misery of migrants from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and other states who moved to California during the Depression and faced outrageous working conditions, when they could find work at all. That same year, Carey McWilliams published Factories in the Field, a detailed exposé of the social and environmental damage inflicted on California's Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, white, and Filipino farm workers by corporate agriculture. Edward R. Murrow's documentary, Harvest of Shame, broadcast on CBS television right before Thanksgiving in 1960, shocked Americans about the exploitation of migrant farm workers who picked the food they ate.

A few years later, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and others started the UFW to organize farm workers and enlist support of consumers to pressure California's big growers to improve working conditions, housing, and pesticide abuse for farm workers. Strikes and boycotts brought reluctant growers to the negotiating table. They signed contracts with the UFW and conditions significantly improved in the late 1960s and 1970s. But gradually the economic and political power of corporate agribusiness eviscerated many of the UFW's victories. The UFW today has fewer contracts with major growers, so farm workers now must rely on state laws to protect them from abuse.

Today, over 400,000 farm workers toil on over 35,000 farms in California. These farm workers provide 90 percent of the labor for California's multibillion-dollar agricultural industry -- the nation's largest -- that produces everything from grapes and strawberries to lettuce to tomatoes.

Farm workers in California work in the extreme heat and tough conditions to feed our nation and face the risk of death and illness. The people who feed us should not fear death when they go to work. Even with a heat related regulation in place, farm workers are literally dying because of no water and access to shade.

California's powerful agribusiness lobby and its business and political allies strongly oppose both of the UFW-supported bills. For example, Stockton Republican Assemblymember Bill Berryhill, who is also a wine grape grower, said: "AB 2346 would warp the state's heat illness regulations in ways that no farmer can implement." Does providing water and shade guaranteed by the law sound like something that "no farmer can implement"? The corporate growers condemn the bill for establishing what the critics call "crippling fines" for violations. Crippling penalties? If employers comply with the law, there are no penalties. Penalties can be imposed only for violations -- like the failures to provide shade and water that have led to farm worker deaths.

The United Farm Workers is asking people of conscience to contact their state legislators and urge them to support these two bills.

It is time to bring California's giant and highly profitable agricultural business into the 21st century.

Peter Dreier is professor of Politics at Occidental College and author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, recently published by Nation Books. Both Cesar Chavez and Carey McWilliams are among the people profiled in his book.

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