Commentary: Treat Farmers Like Factory Owners

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, June 6, 2008

It was a scorching 95-degrees in the vineyard where Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez collapsed while pruning grapes. The teenager lay cradled in the arms of her fiancé for five minutes before she was placed in the back seat of a sweltering van.

When she arrived at a Lodi clinic her body temperature was 108 degrees. She died two days.

The farm labor contractor who employed Maria was fined in 2006 for failing to train its employees about heat stress illnesses. The state is now moving to revoke the firm’s license.

But what about the farmer, West Coast Grape Farming? Maria had been working 9 hours in the company’s vineyards without sufficient water, rest or shade. Under the peculiar rules that govern agriculture in this state, labor contractors, often just a step away from field work themselves, are liable for worker safety violations. But the farmers they contract with are not. That’s wrong.

There are some 80 thousand farms in California, more than 600,000 farm workers and not enough state inspectors to protect them. The best way to prevent tragic deaths is to treat farmers like factory owners – make farmers responsible for the safety of the people who work on their land. Until that happens, farm workers like young Maria will remain vulnerable.


Ginger Rutland writes for the Sacramento Bee Opinion pages.