Local farmworkers and advocates campaign to gain same rights as all workers
By Kit Stolz
To be a farmworker in the fields of Ventura County is not easy. On that point, all sides in the debate over labor conditions — farmworkers, labor organizers, growers and elected officials — agree.
The hours can be very long: from 6 or 7 in the morning until late in the afternoon, with no overtime before a worker has put in 10 hours on the job.
The pay is low. Official numbers vary: A survey of farmworker households conducted by the county’s Resource Management Division in 2002 found that the median farmworker household of five people in Ventura County lived on a total income of just over $24,000 a year, putting 70 percent of farmworkers in the category of “extremely low income,” according to federal Housing and Urban Development standards.
In a more recent study, the federal Bureau of Labor Standards found some improvement in living standards for California farmworkers, with $21,550 in annual income per farmworker, but that still meant an hourly wage of $10.36 an hour, barely over the minimum wage.
For low pay and hard work, farmworkers often suffer wage theft, untreated injury and abuse, according to a survey of hundreds of farmworkers last fall by CAUSE (the Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy). CAUSE is a 15-year-old organization with offices from Oxnard to Santa Maria. Based on the survey, the group has brought a Farmworkers Bill of Rights before the Board of Supervisors in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties and has been pressuring the supervisors to pass the resolution.
The Bill of Rights does not call for specific new rules or regulations. It’s intended to create a movement for better conditions for workers in the fields, based on the data gathered in the surveys compiled by researchers last fall.
The Bill of Rights calls for changes in five categories.
To avoid “extreme overwork” — because most farm workers work over 50 hours a week in the fields without overtime, according to the survey— the Bill of Rights calls for better pay, overtime and paid vacation. (Overtime became a national right for workers in 1941, but farmworkers were exempt.) The United Farm Workers is pushing in the state legislature to grant farmworkers overtime pay after eight hours’ labor, like other workers; Presidential Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has backed that effort.
To avoid retaliation in case of complaints, the Bill of Rights calls for measures to protect workers who speak up. Some advocates have called for a hotline to allow workers to report complaints anonymously to county authorities. According to the survey, 6 percent of farmworkers in the county have been fired for speaking up about working conditions, and 10 percent have been threatened with firing.
To make sure that existing laws and regulations are enforced, the Bill of Rights calls on state agencies to better protect workers’ health and safety by such means as inspections without notification to the employer.
To ensure sanitary conditions, it calls for improvements in bathrooms, with inspections. For protection against exposure to chemicals and pesticides, it advocates allowing pregnant farmworkers to take 60 or 90 days leave, for the sake of their unborn children, without penalty.
Finally, the Bill of Rights asks that the Board of Supervisors take appropriate action.
Lucas Zucker, an organizer for CAUSE in Ventura, the group that backed the survey on which the Bill of Rights is based, said that the group had been inspired by the success of the Fight for $15 (minimum wage) movement in Los Angeles.
“It’s an inspiring moment in the United States right now, with a rejuvenation of interest in economic issues and workers’ rights issues,” he said. “It’s really heartening to see a bubbling up of concern about issues such as workers’ rights and sick leave and wage theft. Low wages and harsh working conditions are just as common in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties as in Los Angeles, and we want to see Ventura make environmental health and safe working conditions in the fields a part of our county’s culture, too.”
ARE COMMON-SENSE SOLUTIONS POSSIBLE?
Zucker and his allies say that in their surveys, farmworkers did not find that large growers were necessarily aware of poor working conditions or abuses in the fields and said they seek “common-sense solutions.”
“If the county’s Environmental Health department could hire one person to do inspections of the bathrooms [in the fields], that could make a huge difference,” he said, offering one example.
Zucker’s concerns were echoed by Arsenio Lopez, the executive director of an Oxnard group, MiCOP (Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project), which organizes on behalf of the large number of farmworkers from central Mexico who work in the fields in Ventura County, many of whom do not speak either English or Spanish, but an indigenous dialect spoken in central Mexico known as Mixteco. MiCOP also supports the Farmworker’s Bill of Rights, but stresses that the campaign is needed for the good of all in the industry and the county, not just workers.
“I really want to emphasize that this is not anything against the industry,” Lopez said. “We know what agriculture means to the county and the community. It’s an important source of income for our families, too. What we are trying to make people aware of is that the conditions are not fair and not just and to continue in this way is not going to make for a better industry in the future. Our farmworkers are getting burned out.”
CAN FARMWORKERS SPEAK UP?
A point often made by workers and their advocates is that farm workers are more vulnerable to intimidation than most workers and are often afraid to object when they are exploited or abused.
Maricela Morales, the executive director of CAUSE, said that many farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, in part because immigration reform has been stalled in Congress for 30 years. She said that this has resulted in a tight labor market for growers, but it also means that they may not realize that conditions are as difficult as ever for their workers.
“Growers often feel that because workers are in demand that they have a reason to take care of their workers, but what they don’t realize is that because so many workers are unauthorized they are much more vulnerable and are less likely to bring up issues of labor violations,” she said. “Even though they know there’s a demand for their labor, they still do not want to put themselves at risk.”
Arsenio Lopez, of MiCOP, said that in many farm fields, the workers are mostly Mixteco, who are particularly vulnerable because of multiple language barriers, and he said that they often are working for labor contractors, not the growers directly. A farm may employ hundreds of workers, few, if any, of whom know the grower personally. Although estimates vary, it’s often reported that 20,000 Mixteco work in the county, concentrated in work on large farms such as berry fields.
“In many industries in the county, such as raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, cilantro, lettuce and celery, which is a big industry in this county, 60 [percent] to 70 percent of the workers in the fields are indigenous,” Lopez said. “These big operations have many different people overseeing the job site, such as contractors, supervisors, majordomos and group leaders. These operations are structured in such a way that it’s almost impossible for the workers to have direct contact with the company.”
In such situations, Lopez said, the kind of violations and abuses that workers face cannot be reported directly to owners, and workers who speak up can be dismissed without the company ever knowing about it.
“Workers absolutely fear retaliation,” he said. “I represent people who often don’t speak Spanish or English. Our people are afraid to speak up at jobs, and if you do speak up about a problem, they will often find a reason to fire you. The reason they give will probably not be because you spoke up for your rights. They will say they are sorry, and they say ‘We’ll call you later,’ but you will never hear back. I think retaliation is a very common practice.”
John Zaragoza, who represents Oxnard on the county Board of Supervisors, said that he supports the Bill of Rights, but he has been working to try and bring both sides — growers and workers — together in a public meeting to discuss the issues of farmworkers and reach agreement on a way forward.
“One of the things I mentioned at the Board of Supervisors hearing we had on this issue is that there are two sides to every story,” he said. “My assumption is that some farmers and their employees have been following state and federal rules, and I would like to hear what they have been doing to protect their employees, if that’s the case.”
CAN GROWERS AND WORKERS GET ALONG?
Lucas Zucker of CAUSE knows that the Board of Supervisors has limits on its powers to enforce workplace rules and regulations, but he nonetheless believes that the specific requests in the Bill of Rights are reasonable, and thinks that with public support, they can build a case for action in the county.
“We think we can make a bigger impact on a local level than on a state level at this time,” he said. “We think we are asking for very reasonable provisions, for example, for 10-minute water breaks, with shade and bathrooms. We are asking for the right of pregnant farmworkers to take time off to protect their future child from exposure to dangerous pesticides and chemicals, even though they make on average about $15,000 a year, and to be able to come back to the same job they had when they return to the fields.”
One innovative strawberry farm in Oxnard is already working toward building such a consensus, but outside the Farmworkers Bill of Rights structure. Crisalida Berry Farms, which sells millions of pounds of strawberries a year, primarily to Costco, is part of an innovative international consortium called Equitable Farms Initiative, which intends to build consensus between buyers, growers and farmworkers, based on an extensive and agreed-upon set of standards, and to find workplace mechanisms to make sure those standards are maintained.
Ernie Farley runs the Crisalida farm, and recently was in the local news as the U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez (often mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket) came out to visit Farley’s 180-acre strawberry farm in Oxnard in company with U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, United Farm Worker official Arturo Rodriguez and Peter O’Driscoll, who heads the Equitable Farms Initiative.
Farley gave the officials a quick lesson in strawberry production — “Strawberry 101” he called it —and showed how alert and conscientious employees helped him by finding pests, and by picking ripe fruit and refrigerating it within two hours of harvest. With about 300 workers on his farm, he said that labor was by far his highest cost, and that his success depended on their good work and his ability to keep good people on the job.
“All of this has to do with labor,” he said. “Strawberries are an incredibly labor-intensive crop.”
Perez said that the Equitable Farms Initiative was an example of “how we can build a shared prosperity.”
In a follow-up interview, Farley said that for him, the Equitable Farms Initiative was a way to create a working bond with his people.
“It’s really a tool that we use to further and deepen our workplace discussions and trainings,” he said. “No matter what industry you’re in, be it the auto industry or fresh fruit, these kind of management-labor discussions are initially going to be met with skepticism from everyone; but as you go on and build a level of trust and start to have confidence in each other, I think you start to see benefits. We’re seeing more retention of our people and more focus on the job.”
Farley, like other officials with the Equitable Farms Initiative, would not take questions on the Farmworkers Bill of Rights, but he said that he was sympathetic to workers asking for decent working conditions and suggested that the workplace councils held regularly as part of the EFI effort were an effort along those lines. As an example, he said that he, for one, would consider requests from pregnant farm workers to take time off work to have a safe pregnancy.
“Look, I’m a pretty simple guy,” he said. “To me the goal is having a workplace where everyone feels confident and comfortable about raising their hand and speaking up in a meeting. Everything else — all those benefits — happens when you have people comfortable about raising their hand.”
THE RISK OF PESTICIDES TO FARMWORKERS
Five out of 10 farmworkers surveyed by CAUSE say they have suffered negative effects from pesticides, and seven out of 10 feel that their working conditions are dangerous or harmful to health.
One farmworker recently told her story to the Board of Supervisors, in a public-comments session in a board meeting on April 19. Reyna Ortega said she worked in the fields in Ventura County beginning at age 14. Although she currently works for an organic farm in Oxnard, she said she was working in conventional agriculture when she was pregnant a few years ago.
“One of the things that can happen [in conventional agriculture] is that they would apply pesticides with a helicopter,” she said, through a translator. “And they would tell us to get in our cars and they would pay us for that time. The helicopter would spray and half an hour later we would be working again. When I was working for this company I was pregnant. I worked there for four months. My daughter was born with Down syndrome. I’m not saying it was because of the spraying, but these are the conditions.”
A recent report from UCLA researchers at the Sustainable Technology and Policy Program on the hazards of mixing pesticides, especially the fumigants used to prepare fields for conventional strawberry plantings, found that application of commonly used chemical formulations such as chloropicrin, Telone® and metam sodium had a synergistic effect, increasing the risk of cancer and genetic mutations, including potential impacts on unborn children.
Virginia Zaunbrecher, the lead author of the report, said that no specific case could be shown by broad exposure to such chemicals, but said that their study had shown a cumulative effect on the replication of cells.
“The point of our report is that the science shows that the interaction of these pesticides may have an effect that is greater than the sum of the parts, and that this could have developmental and reproductive effects, as well as carcinogenic effects,” she said.
Sonya Lunder is an analyst with the Environmental Working Group based in Washington, D.C, which, this year, put strawberries at the top of the “Dirty Dozen” list of farm products most likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues. Lunder said that her organization shared the concern about the effect that pesticides, fumigants and fungicides had on farmworker health, even more so than for consumers. She cited a 2010 U.C. Berkeley study that showed long-lasting effects on the children of mothers who had worked in the fields during pregnancy.
“It’s definitely concerning,” she said. “Pesticides are formulated to attack the nervous system of insects and many have an effect on the human nervous system as well. These fears about exposure during pregnancy seem completely reasonable to us.”
Carolyn O’Donnell of the California Strawberry Commission said that the state had “an incredibly strict regulatory framework, far in excess of what other states have, with very specific guidelines with regard to application [of pesticides] and to protections for labor.”
She added that, in terms of pesticides, “the Environmental Working Group did not do any risk analysis of pesticide residues found on strawberries, and the residues that were detected were far below the safety levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”
For Arsenio Lopez of MiCOP the central question is simpler.
“We have seen a lot of studies on farmworkers,” he said. “Always those studies show that there are problems. That’s why we are asking the Board of Supervisors to take action, to protect the industry and to protect the farmworker. We should at least be able to listen and to take action. We cannot keep our eyes and our ears always closed to the suffering of the farmworkers.”