Today, it was unseasonably warm in our city of Boston. 70 degrees, on March 18th. I am told that this time last year daffodils were struggling to push their buds up through heavy layers of snow. But it feels great, and brings to mind all the awesome produce that will soon be grown around us, and heading our way from points beyond. Yes, it is always preferable to grow your own food and purchase from local farmers. But here in Massachusetts, not all edibles are grown, even in spring and summer. Like most parts of the country, much of the produce we consume comes from the breadbasket of California, where wide fertile lands and appropriate climate conditions allow the wealth of farm activity we know it to have.
But as the days warm into Summer and the produce begins flowing in, keep California in mind, specifically the conditions on the ground, as it were. For, year after year, farm workers have been suffering unbearable conditions under the hot sun, some of them dying, mostly due to a complete lack of competence and care for safety on the part of companies and the State.
The regulations which ensure the safe working conditions of farm-workers in California are enforced by its Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (Cal/OSHA), which has recently been taken to trial by the ACLU for failing to live up to its standards. The workers in question provide 90 percent of the labor in California’s multi-billion-dollar agricultural industry, and are routinely deprived of water, shade and rest, having to work outdoors in temperatures that commonly top 100 degrees F! This lawsuit is considered a landmark in that it is focused and comprehensive; California passed a law in 2005 to protect farm-workers from heat illness and death, and yet, according to the LA Times, at least ten individuals have lost their lives since, harvesting the produce that conveniently appears on our cool, climate-controlled grocery shelves.
The situations in which these people die are sad and, due to the need of income for often impoverished families, desperate. In 2008, one man, Audon Felix Garcia of Bakersfield was found slumped over in his truck with a core body temperature of 108 degrees. It is elsewhere reported that Garcia had been working on a day with a high of 112 degrees F, and had 15 years of fieldwork experience. Even more tragic was the death of Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, only 17 at the time, who according to Time magazine, died after picking grapes for nine hours straight in 95-degree heat. Perhaps one of the most surprising numbers is the staggering fact that out of roughly 35,000 farms in California, only 750 inspections were conducted by Cal/OSHA in a year, as of two summers ago. There is no real way of telling how may abuses, both lethal and non, have occurred on farms statewide in the grueling summer months; only the stories of the workers themselves would do justice, if they had more means to be heard.
There is more that you can do beyond paying attention to your consumer habits at the market. A good place to start would be with the United Farm Workers. One of the main campaign focuses of the UFW, America’s largest farm worker union, founded by Cesar Chavez (whose birthday and California State holiday in his name is celebrated in a few weeks on March 31st) in 1962, is promoting the awareness of heat-related injuries and deaths of employees on company-owned farms. They stand behind the ACLU lawsuit and are a strong voice of testimony and non-violent action in establishing the right to a safe agricultural workplace. You can easily sign petitions for the movement on their site which get sent to relevant politicians and manufacturers, as well as keep abreast of the issue and see how your own voice of protest affects the lives of those who work extremely hard hand-selecting the fruits and veggies that end up on your plate.