Should California Deny Farm Workers Their Basic Rights?

By Li Miao Lovett

If Google employees had to work in 100-degree heat in California’s Central Valley, it would be all over the news. But when it involves farm workers, it’s another story.

In May, three years after a pregnant farm worker collapsed and subsequently died from heat and dehydration, SB 104 cleared its second hurdle in California’s legislative assembly. But the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act couldn’t pass muster with Governor Jerry Brown, who vetoed the bill on June 28t.

SB 104 would have ensured enforcement of laws already in the books. The death of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, and at least 12 others since 2005, is unconscionable; we have neglected to treat workers who do our nation’s toughest jobs with basic human decency.

The voices for workers safety in the Golden State have been lost in the morass of politics. While SB 104 didn’t make a stir in the mainstream news, what caused controversy on the legislative trail was the card-check provision. In the Assembly hearings, Republican Bill Berryhill claimed that giving the state’s more than 400,000 farm workers the right to vote away from the workplace would do away with the secret ballot that Caesar Chavez once fought for.

This sounds a little like the fox guarding the henhouse. Assemblyman William Monning, D-Carmel, explained that the secret ballot currently used is not enough to ward off the “power of growers to maximize threats, intimidation, closed company meetings [to] dissuade workers from voting for union representation.” Monning would know; he worked for the United Farm Workers when the Agricultural Labor Relations Act was signed into law during Brown’s first governorship in 1975.

One can speculate why Brown vetoed SB 104 35 years later, tuning out the cries of farm workers who trekked to the state capital, and also those of key Democrats, including Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who introduced the bill and joined supporters in a symbolic fast. Maybe Brown thinks he’s done enough for farm labor. Or he doesn’t want to appear too union friendly.

After his standoff with lawmakers over the state budget, he’s certainly had bigger fish to fry. Sure, labor battles seem to cause an allergic reaction — Governor Scott Walker wants to exterminate organized labor in Wisconsin. But step away from the hot button issues for a moment. Why is it so hard to take human health and safety seriously when we have laws governing everything from work conditions and environmental protection to the preservation of endangered species?

Maria Isabel was entitled to shade and water as she pruned grapes and became more dehydrated over a nine-hour period. No one called 911 when the pregnant teen collapsed from heat. The managers of Merced Farm Labor got off easy; both the owner and safety coordinator were sentenced to community service and probation. The death prompted Cal-OSHA, the state’s branch of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to step up its training and enforcement of heat regulations. But this should have happened as soon as the rules came on the books in 2005. Thirteen deaths is 13 too many, and many more of California’s farm workers endure conditions that few of us would stand for.

We live in disconnected times. Where our food comes from, where our electronic waste goes; these are issues that don’t take up much RAM in our mass-produced society. It’s hard to connect that giant sow I saw at the Marin County Fair with the BBQ pork in my sandwich. And if growers, especially the giant agribusinesses, are so focused on the bottom line, it’s hard for them to see their workers as people with families, and human limits.

Even the enlightened managers, like one I interviewed on the central coast, are mostly sitting in their air-conditioned offices. They don’t feel the searing heat, parched throats, the seep of pesticides through their pores and nasal passages. Every day, farm workers labor under these conditions. It’s a shame that the bosses of Big Ag can disregard basic human needs. For the politicos, union issues may be a point of contention, but matters around basic necessities should not be. The connection to our agrarian past has been severed; we have lost touch with the tasks that put food on our tables and shelter over our heads.

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck portrayed the struggles of farm workers displaced by the Dust Bowl more than three quarters of a century ago. At the end of the book, the Joad family desperately takes shelter from the rains in a boxcar. Rose of Sharon delivers a stillborn baby, but in the wake of tragedy she performs an act of kindness for a dying man.

There’s room for more kindness toward the Maria Isabels of our day, their unborn children and the families who work under duress and extreme heat to bring us the bounty of the fields.

Li Miao Lovett is an award-winning writer telling stories of cultural and environmental change. Her debut novel, In the Lap of the Gods, is a tale of the effects of modernization and the battle between man and nature along the Yangtze River.

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July 14, 2011  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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