Thursday, August 11, 2005

Sweatshops In The Sun

Marc Cooper's latest piece in the LA Weekly on farm workers is a must-read.

FMC and I were talking last week about our frustration regarding the lack of coverage and outrage regarding several recent deaths of farm workers due to heat exhaustion. Salud Zamudio-Rodriguez died picking bell peppers at a cruel pace in 105-degree heat. According to his co-workers, the grower was eager to begin a fresh field the following morning, and so the tractor setting the pace for the pickers doubled and then tripled its speed.

Last July, Asuncion Valdivia died in the fields of Giumarra Vineyards, the largest table grape grower in the world, after working 10 hours in 100-degree heat. This July, 40-year-old Augustine Gudino died in a Giumarra Vineyard in Kern County. According to Martha Arredondo, a former Giumarra worker, the company has quotas workers must fill or face firing. "They provide no tables or umbrellas. We had to pack the grapes on our hands and knees."

John Giumarra replies: "Because we separate our grapes into three or four grades, it's hard to do that on a table that only holds only two boxes at time. Yes, our packers work on plastic on the ground, but it's not in the full sun. The vine shades them for the most part." Wow, the comforting partial shade of the vines sounds fabulous. I'm sure that helps prevent heat stroke.

Why don't we hear more about farm worker issues? Cooper writes that most people seem to think that Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) ended abuse of farm workers. I think that's probably true. But farm workers are routinely denied breaks, water, rest, and fair wages. How far have we really come in terms of providing humane working conditions for the men and women who toil in the fields to literally put food on our tables?

After the spate of recent deaths, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger held a press conference on August 2 to announce emergency regulations requiring employers to provide water and shade for laborers who become sick from working in the heat. He was joined at the press conference by the family of Constantino Cruz Hernandez, who died on July 31, ten days after collapsing in a Kern County tomato field where he worked a nine-hour shift in 100-degree temperatures.

The proposed regulations would require employers and employees to know how to recognize, prevent and treat heat stress. Employers would also be required to provide shade and water to outdoor workers. The regulations won't take effect until tomorrow at the earliest, when the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board is expected to meet and consider the adoption of the emergency rules.

More stringent regulations, including mandated shaded rest areas and two gallons of drinking water per worker for each eight-hour day, are proposed in AB 805,introduced by Assemblymember Judy Chu. The bill passed the Assembly but is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee. AB 805 is opposed by farm groups that claim they already offer worker protections and don't need this legislation. Besides, asks Blaine Carian, vice president of Desert Fresh in Coachella, "How big a shade do you need for 100 people? Pretty big. That's problematic." Much more problematic, I am sure, than the occasional worker death.

If you're a Californian, you can support the proposed emergency rules by emailing the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board through the UFW website. You can support AB 805 by emailing your state senator.

No comments: