News & Politics

California Strawberry Pickers Fired for Fleeing Dangerous Wildfire

The company only reinstated the workers after intense outcry.

Fifteen farm workers have won back their right to work after being fired last week for fleeing wildfire smoke.

The workers, who pick strawberries for Crisalida Farms in Oxnard, California, were warned by their foreman that they’d lose their jobs if they left. But the raining ash and blowing smoke caused by the fast-burning wildfires proved too much to bear.

As one worker told NBC’s southern California affiliate, “it was hard to breathe.” Though none of the farm workers were part of a union, United Farm Workers stepped in to help with their case this week, stressing the idea that “No worker shall work under conditions where they feel his life or health is in danger.”

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Crisalida Farms has since agreed to give the workers their jobs back. Like any huge agricultural economy, California’s farms employ significant numbers of low-wage migrant workers, not all of whom are in the country with proper documentation. Such workers usually lack bargaining power in negotiations, and it’s easy for farm owners to take advantage of those employees.

A new set of bills in California aims to address this by creating punitive measures for farms that threaten to report workers to immigration authorities. Farmworkers’ rights have also been a point of contention during the debate over comprehensive immigration reform, with growers and House Republicans pushing for lower mandatory wages for agricultural employees.

Annie-Rose Strasser is a Deputy Managing Editor at Think Progress.