31 March 2014

The summer heat is posing serious dangers for the farmworkers who’ve helped
make California the nation’s leading supplier of fruits and vegetables.

The state has rules designed to protect workers from the devastating
temperatures in the vineyards and fields that can hover near or above 100
degrees throughout much of the summer. The rules require mainly that
workers have easy access to water and regular shade breaks.

But the rules are inadequate and, in any case, are routinely violated by
growers and the labor contractors who hire crews for them, says the United
Farm Workers union.

UFW President Arturo Rodriguez is certain “the state does not have the
capacity to protect farmworkers … They are not being protected from the
extreme heat they labor under to pick the food we have on our table.”

Overall statistics on deaths and illness caused by the heat are difficult –
if not impossible – to come by. But the UFW and others cite individual cases
that make the danger faced by farmworkers alarmingly clear.

Consider the death this year of a 17-year-old undocumented Mexican
immigrant, Maria Isabel Vasquez, which prompted UFW members and supporters
to lead a four-day pilgrimage to the State Capitol in Sacramento to demand
tougher and more tightly enforced heat regulations.

Maria, two months pregnant, collapsed in the arms of her 19-year-old
husband-to-be, Florentino Bautista, following several hours of pruning
grapes in 100-degree heat. They were working for a contractor who had been
issued citations on three occasions for exposing workers to possible heat
strokes and failing to train them to avoid heat stress – and who already
owed the state more than $2,000 in fines. Authorities are investigating
Bautista’s claim that Maria, whose body temperature reached 108, was denied
shade and water.

Bautista said the pruning crew’s foreman recommended instead that she rest
in a hot van and be revived with rubbing alcohol before he could take her to
a nearby medical clinic, almost two hours later. California Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger and Mexican officials said that, at any rate, Maria’s death
was preventable. It could perhaps have been prevented by such a simple thing
as placing jugs of water throughout the vineyard, as foremen did in response
to the death.

Ramiro Carillo, a 48-year-old with two teenage children, was one of four
workers to die of heat stroke in a recent two-week period. He died on the
way to a hospital. Among the other victims was Abdon Felix Garcia, 42, a
father of three children who died after several hours of loading and
transporting boxes of table grapes. His core body temperature reached 108
degrees just before he died, matching the temperature in the vineyard.

Last year’s victims included 52-year-old Eladio Hernandez, who died of a
heart attack while working in the sweltering heat of a Northern California
orchard. His employer waited almost three hours before calling for medical
assistance, and it didn’t arrive until Hernandez’ fellow workers called 911
on their own. The employer actually said he could not give employees
suffering from the heat more or longer breaks than allowed the others
because that “would be discrimination.”

Many workers have come forward with similar accounts of employer
indifference, among them Jairo Luque, who works in the carrot fields: “The
water runs out and they do not bring any more. Sometimes they bring tap
water, which is not clean. Sometimes the water is hot. People are desperate
because there’s no water. We are not camels than can be working without

Vineyard worker Alfredo Alvarenga says if you’re fatigued and want to take a
break then -- before or after your regular break -- forget it. “You just
have to keep going. Workers are not allowed to take more breaks, because
it’s work time and the supervisors cannot find you resting.”

Martin Zavalka, another vineyard worker, says “in the fields the temperature
is 108-110 degrees. The company provides umbrellas for shade… very little
umbrellas. Sometimes the umbrellas are broken and the company takes three or
four days to replace them.”

Zeferina Castillo recalled a recent, typical Saturday: “It was really hot …
four people fainted.”

Growers and labor contractors, says Arturo Rodriguez, have to realize that
“the farmworker is not an agricultural implement. We’re not a tool, we’re
human beings. People need to feel that the life of whoever it is who’s
working in the fields is important.”


Copyright © 2008 Dick Meister. He's co-author of “A Long Time Coming: The
Struggle to Unionize America’s Farm Workers” (Macmillan). Contact him
through his website, www.dickmeister.com.