How Many More Workers Will We Let Die in the Fields This Summer?

Editor's note: The Department of Agriculture estimates that 50 percent of all agricultural workers in the U.S. are undocumented immigrants, and unofficial estimates range as high as 70 percent. Those who would dismiss the tragedies that have befallen them because these workers had "broken the law" should therefore keep in mind that between 30-50 percent of farmworkers are perfectly legal, including U.S. citizens, and they share the same plight. Only by fixing a broken system of legal immigration and cleaning up these illegal jobs can we hope to humanely deflect "illegal" immigrants into the system and out of the shadows of our largely unregulated low-skilled workforce.


A week ago, 46-year-old Ramiro Carrillo passed away at his Selma, CA home after picking nectarines for about four hours in 112-degree heat at Sun Valley Packing. Two weeks ago 42-year-old Abdon Felix died after working in the fields at Sunview Vineyards near Delano, California. His body temperature was 108 degrees when he arrived at the hospital. Last month Jose Macarena, 64, collapsed in a field in Santa Barbara County and later died during a 110-degree day. Back in May, 17-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, who was two months pregnant, died in a vineyard near Stockton, after working eight hours in the heat without adequate water or shade. When she collapsed, the labor contractors who hired her opted to not rush her to the hospital and instead attempted to cool her off in a car by putting rubbing alcohol on her skin.

As we enter the dog days of summer, we should expect more days of 100-degree temperatures in the Central Valley of California and other agricultural regions. With the extreme heat, we'll see more farmworker deaths as well, unless there is stronger enforcement of labor laws designed to prevent heat related deaths.

Kerry Trueman of the Huffington Post recently connected the dots between global warming and heat-related deaths in the fields. The EPA has given contradictory statements about whether global warming poses a health risk to humans - it's stated that there isn't a connection between increased and man-made global warming, and it's said that we must regulate green house gases under the Clean Air Act. The valleys of California have trapped smog for as long as residents have been heating and cooking with fire. With the addition of the automobile, millions of people, and industrial farming techniques, the valleys have come to feel like ovens, especially during the summer months. The Central Valley is also experiencing one of the driest seasons on record since 1962. In late June, Governor Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought. The National Weather Service is recommending that people use swimming pools and drink plenty of water to avoid heat related illness, but it seems that this message isn't resonating with the farmers or labor contractors. Not everyone in sunny California has a swimming pool.

When American society was more agrarian, consumers of produce and livestock felt more of a connection with the food that they consumed, and that connection reached to those who labored to produce the harvests. With the rise of global food supply chains, we no longer feel a connection to those who labor for our fruits and vegetables. The traditional media mentions these farmworker deaths in passing and fails to connect global warming, immigration, and the global food supply chain together. Big agribusiness is driving up the cost of corn in countries like Mexico by pushing ethanol to ease the use of fossil fuels. Symptoms of global warming are exacerbated by the chemical pesticides used in the fields, while undocumented farmworkers who come to the U.S. to earn more money are deemed "illegal aliens" and denied basic human rights while putting food on our tables. With multiple factors in play, it's no wonder the average citizen doesn't know much about the food he or she consumes, who helped bring it to market or even why undocumented people are driven to work in such extreme heat.

As long as agriculture is treated as big business as usual, we are going to see more farmworker deaths. These workers are expendable to the labor contractors and farms that hire them. Farmworkers report working with inadequate access to cool water, shade, and even rest breaks. Workers report that employers are indifferent to their plight, providing only the minimal protection, such as small umbrellas to shade their workers and often not even providing water jugs in the fields. Imagine feeling dehydrated from laboring in 100+ degree heat and then having to walk far from your workstation just to have a drink of water that may very well be warm from the scorching sun.

Currently, the California Department of Education is distributing information in the state's migrant education program about the dangers of heat stroke. Additionally, the Department of Industrial Relations is working to ensure that employers comply with California state law requiring water and shade to be provided to farm laborers. And Cal-OSHA is investigating working conditions on the state's farms.

But the current efforts by the state of California aren't enough. Governor Schwarzenegger attended Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez's funeral in May and vowed to prevent future deaths of this kind. Here we are in mid-July, and three additional farmworkers have died. We aren't even into August and September, likely the hottest months of the year, and what do we have to look forward to in order to drink our strawberry smoothies and savor our salads and wine? Have we become so complacent and ignorant about the realities of the food chain that we allow more farmworkers to become casualties of global warming, big agribusiness, and our failed immigration policies?

Compounding the dire working conditions in the fields is the lack of a comprehensive immigration reform that would legalize these laborers and offer them greater protections under the law. The hysteria whipped up over undocumented immigrants played a large part in killing the possibility of any serious progress on immigration reform in the current Congress. And the often-complacent citizens of the United States rarely connect the dots between the climate crisis, the rise of big agribusiness, and global migration.

Meanwhile, politicians are turning their backs on the problem. . In 2007, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the Fair Treatment for Farmworkers Act. Anyone who wants to stand up for the farmworkers who risk their lives to earn a living and bring produce to our tables should e-mail him to ask that he make good on his word to prevent future deaths in the fields. Send a message to Governor Schwarzenegger asking him to make sure that the existing laws regulating workers' labor conditions are better enforced, and ask him to support Fabian Nuñez's bill that would allow these laborers to better organize and enforce the laws that the state is not equipped to enforce.

Hopefully, with careful organizing and activism, we will not allow additional farmworkers die from preventable causes.

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