Monday, August 15, 2005

The Wrath Of Immigrant Farmworkers in California

Looking for something to depress you? Check out this must-read article by Marc Cooper in the LA Weekly about the plight of immigrant farmworkers in California. It discusses in depth the wretced conditions they live and work under, and the decline of the United Farm Workers over the past four decades. You need to read the whole thing. But here are some tastes.

“In my work, it is also very hard,” Felipa continues. “The foreman demands that each team of three people produce 72 tubs of grapes per day.” A tub holds 23 pounds of grapes, sorted, cleaned, bunched and packed in plastic ready for supermarket shelves. “Sometimes it goes up to 96 tubs,” Felipa says. “We don’t have time to take our breaks. If you turn in less than they ask for, they run you out after three days.”

I ask her if she knows that the law requires farm workers be given at least two 10-minute breaks a day, apart from a 30-minute lunch. Unmoving and silent, she merely smiles back at me — as if to say, “What kind of idiot are you?”
Decline of the UFW and Worker Protections:
Family ranchers and corporate growers have shirked legal and moral responsibilities by outsourcing more and more employment through unscrupulous middleman contractors who feast on the undocumented and the desperate by routinely shortchanging them, forcing them to work unpaid overtime, ignoring safety standards, bilking them for rides and rental of tools, and, more frequently than one can imagine, straight-out stiffing them on payday.

The confluence of labor-contracting schemes, hostile Sacramento administrations, historic strategic mistakes by the UFW, and the flood of ever more desperate undocumented workers have, meanwhile, eroded unionization to the minuscule level of less than 2 percent of the work force.

While the 30-year-old pro-worker provisions of the ALRA still look great on paper, field enforcement by the state has become less than lax. Whether through indifference or through sheer lack of resources — including an almost total absence of representatives who can speak the indigenous languages of many workers — the result is grim. “Nowadays, it takes about nine months for a worker to even get a state wage hearing,” laments Fresno-based CRLA lawyer Alegria de la Cruz, whose grandparents were key players in the UFW. “By then the contractor is usually out of business. It’s basically, ‘Fuck you, I’m not going to pay you.’” For that majority of workers who hold no legal immigration status, there are no hearings, no legal remedies whatsoever.
[California Rural Legal Assistance lawyer Jeff] Ponting is currently leading a fight on behalf of locals who got doused in a massive pesticide drift. There’s been at least one major drift incident in each of the last four years in this area — most recently last May, when 27 people fell ill. The worst case was in October 2003, when a cloud of the fumigant chloropicrin — the same active ingredient that’s used in tear gas — floated off the Yaksitch Farms and enveloped scores, including 165 who are now suing. "People were vomiting, throwing up on the streets, kids were crying and screaming," Ponting says. "It was chaos. And this happens every year. But medical people don’t know how to deal with it. They don’t speak the language of the workers. The clinics don’t know how to recognize the symptoms. They give the workers aspirins and send them back to work."
And much, much more. Read the rest.