One morning earlier this year, in the borderland town of Brawley, California, 75-year-old Ignacio Villalobos perched on a chair in his trailer, removed a plastic bag from the well of a rubber boot, and finished dressing for work. Dawn was still an hour away, and in the wan light of the kitchen, Villalobos took off his house sandals and pulled the bag over his right foot. He bunched it at the ankle, then slipped his foot into his boot.
“These shoes aren’t made for water,” he said, adding that morning dew and irrigation keep farm fields damp—even in the desert of the Imperial Valley where he was working. Villalobos estimated that a pair of decent used boots would run him $30, almost half a day’s wages; the bags were free.
A few days ago, I wrote about a new Southern Poverty Law Center study that found that women who work in fields are often subject to sexual harassment. The woman who spoke at the press conference, Carina Davis also mentioned that the supervisors who harassed workers sometimes sprayed them with pesticides. She and her co-workers were always getting sick, she said.
Carina Diaz worked in fields in upstate New York for seven years, picking tomatoes, planting onions, and growing other specialty vegetable crops like beets. During that time, she says, she and the other women she worked with were sexually harassed by their supervisor and his friend. Her supervisor groped the women, made vulgar comments and threatened them. She says she had a boss who threatened to deport undocumented workers because he didn't want to pay them bonuses they were due. In general, the supervisors acted as if the harassment were acceptable because they gave the women jobs, and the women were afraid to report the abuse because they needed the money and didn't trust law enforcement.
In 2008, Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenezdied after pruning grapes for nine hours in the California heat. It was nearly 100 degrees. She was two months pregnant and 17 years old. Authorities there charged the farm supervisors in her death, accusing them of not allowing Jimenez to get water or shade. Today, the two pleaded guilty in a deal that allows them to avoid jail time.
Maria De Los Angeles Colunga, the owner of now-defunct Merced Farm Labor, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of failing to provide shade. She received 40 hours of community service, serve three years of probation and pay a $370 fine.
Stephen Franklin says some of the worst worker abuses are in food-processing and farming -- where government is a huge purchaser:
You would think that after many decades of farmworker abuse and increased public awareness of such conditions, life would be far better today for the Florabeth de la Garzas who harvest and process what we eat. But that is not the case -- even with federal and state protections and the efforts of unions and worker-advocacy and human-rights groups.