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Vol. 72/No. 38      September 29, 2008

Farm worker convention discusses fight
against abusive work conditions
FRESNO, California—The deaths this summer from heat stroke of six California farm workers were at the center of much of the discussion at the 18th convention of the United Farm Workers, held here August 22-24 in the heart of California’s Central Valley.

Union organizing director Armando Elenes described to convention delegates some of the criminal, abusive behavior to which these workers were subjected.

Maria Isabel Vázquez Jiménez, 17, collapsed on May 14 while pruning a vineyard in heat that topped 95 degrees. Workers only had one water break that day and water was a 10-minute walk away, too far to get to and keep up with the crew.

Maria de Jesús Alvarez, 63, died of heat stroke and dehydration July 15 after working without access to shade in heat that reached 111 degrees.

Jorge Herrera, 37, passed out July 10 while loading table grapes in 108 degree heat.

Several speakers at the convention emphasized that the only way to effectively fight abusive conditions in the fields is to build the union.

Of the more than 450,000 agricultural workers in the California fields only a small percentage are organized into the United Farm Workers. Elenes pointed out that the majority of recent deaths were of workers involved in harvesting table grapes, a crop where there is almost no union presence. These are the fields where farm workers battled in the l960s and ’70s to establish the union.

Other speakers pointed out that Cal/OSHA, the government agency assigned to enforce work safety, is complicit in maintaining the conditions that have led to the deaths—at least 15 in California since 2005.

After protests put the spotlight on the case of Maria Isabel Vásquez, Cal/OSHA fined the contractor $262,700. In other cases growers and contractors have been fined an average of only $9,945 for farm workers who died between 2005 to 2008. The fines are often dropped when appealed, in one case ending up at just $250.

Widespread use of piecework exacerbates the unsafe conditions. Workers are driven to risk their health to make the rate. The bosses are also using more machines for the harvests, forcing workers to work faster to keep up.

Reflecting the growing number of farm workers from indigenous communities in Mexico, several presentations at the convention were made in the indigenous languages of Mixtec and Triqui.

Mixtec and Triqui workers in the pea fields near Salinas played an important role in a two-day strike in April. They were protesting a quota requiring workers to pick 200 pounds of peas per day. They won their demands for the rehiring of 20 workers who had been fired for not making the quota, and for fresh, clean, drinking water at no cost. They were being charged 50 cents to a dollar per day for water.

A resolution was passed by convention delegates promoting a bill in Congress on immigration known as the “AgJOBS” bill. This legislation would give temporary resident status to farm workers who have 863 hours or 150 days working in the fields during the 24-month period ending Dec. 31, 2006, with a path to permanent residency that includes more stringent requirements.

Another resolution was passed supporting plans by union officials to recruit to the union guest workers in the U.S. under H2-A legislation. There are about 75,000 such workers, the majority working in the Southeast and Midwest. According to H2-A law, they can stay in this country for only 10 months and are subject to deportation if they cease working for the employer who brought them here.

Carole Lesnick contributed to this article.
Related articles:
UK farmers protest low pay for milk contracts  
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