Former Speaker of the California State Assembly Fabian Núñez has released a short documentary film titled "Harvest of Shame". The film is narrated by Núñez and it documents the unsafe and sometimes fatal conditions that farm workers face on a daily basis while harvesting our fruits and vegetables.
The film comes at the heals of a bill authored by Speaker Emeritus Núñez, Assembly Bill 2386. The bill was written in response to the unsafe working conditions faced by farm workers. For a brief outline on the bill see the Farm Workers page Assemblyman Núñez has on his website. The provisions of AB 2386 are currently not supported by The California Farm Bureau Federation, which is a broad coalition of California agricultural organizations, it issued a statement urging a veto of the measure by California Gov. Schwarzenegger.
AB 2386 would authorize secret ballot elections for farm workers and help ensure that the laws on the books match the realities in the farm fields. The bill passed the Senate and currently awaits a response from the California Governor, who is expected to veto the measure.
Deaths Related to Heat Stroke
Since 2004 a total of 15 farm workers have died in the farm fields of California. Some 34 farm workers have died of heat stroke in the United States between 2003-2008. No other occupation, besides firefighters sees more deaths from heat stroke on a per-capita basis, than farm workers. The occupational hazards of firefighters encompass heat stroke, but how can we allow farm workers to pick our crops while risking their lives in the hot sun?
Cal-OSHA, the agency entrusted to inspect agricultral operations for safety can certainly do a better job of enforcing already existing rules, fines and penalties on farms. Criticism can also be leveled at the United Farm Workers who have largely failed to raise awareness of the issue and identify troublesome, repeat offending farms.
It should ne noted that most death cases resulting from heat stroke are not deliberate, which means that the farmer, farm staff and/or supervisors only needed to be better prepared. The need for better training to treat heat-related illnesses is evident.
The questions beg: Why is it that farmers are not required to suspend operations once temperature levels are deemed dangerous by the National Weather Service? It's ironic, that such practice is common and widely used in Mexico. I witnessed this as a 17-year-old, when on a whim I decided to pick cotton for a summer, while staying with my Grandmother in Mexicali.
While I was enthusiastically picking cotton, in what later amounted to the equivalent of slave-wages, and shoving it into a large canvas bag, which was tied at my waist and trailed behind as I straddled it between my legs, I heard a shout that came from the foreman. He interrupted my enthusiastic harvest and he politely told me to stop, indicating the weather was too hot. The foreman added that if I wanted, I could return once the sun started to set and continue my harvesting, it was only then that I noticed that besides me only he and another worker sitting under the shade while he manned the weight scale, remained.
That was in Mexico and some 25+ years ago, surely we can do better, if not do just the same. Can't we?
Tough Economic Conditions
Firefighters know the risks that come with the job. They know that they may be vulnerable to heat-related death when they sign up for the job, but should we expect the same from farm workers?
There are simple things we can do to help ensure the safety of farm workers. We can mandate that farmers provide their workers with water, shade, and rest periods. We can demand that Cal-OSHA not be bullied by the large scale lobbying of California's Agri-Business and enforce already existing penalties and fines, that would be a start.
If we want to think outside the box, perhaps the cheapest solutions is simply for agri-business to institute "flex-time" which would allow farm workers a varied work schedule that does not require them to work under the hot sun. It's a thought and one that could go far in stemming the loss of life farm workers potentially face while doing nothing more than bringing food to our tables.