Pregnant farm worker dies of heat stroke

In life under the capitalist system, workers are treated like commodities. To the bosses, workers are mere objects who can be bought, used up, and thrown away.

Funeral for Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez

The casket of Maria Isabel Vasquez

Jimenez wrapped in a United Farm

Workers flag, Lodi, Calif., May 28

This reality was made clear once again on May 14. Seventeen-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, two months pregnant, suffered a heat stroke while working in the fields outside Stockton. On May 16, she died from complications caused by the heat stroke.

Maria’s serious condition was callously neglected by the foreman on duty. Maria worked for contractor Merced Farm Labor picking grapes in a vineyard owned by West Coast Grape Farming. In 2006, Merced Farm Labor was issued three citations for exposing workers to heat stroke, failing to train workers on heat stress prevention and not installing toilets at the work site. To this day, the citations and violations have been ignored by the company.

Under the law, each farm worker is supposed to be provided one quart of water per shift. The law was ignored in Maria’s case. She had been working for four hours in over 95-degree heat with no water break. When a break was finally offered, she had to walk 10 minutes to the nearest water station. It was too far for Maria to make it without being scolded by the foreman for wasting time.

To add insult to injury, when Maria collapsed at 3:30 p.m., for at least five minutes the foreman did nothing but stare at her. Finally, the foreman told Maria’s boyfriend, Florentino Bautista, to put her in a van and put a wet cloth on her. Reportedly, the inside of the van was extremely hot.

The foreman told a driver to take the pair to a store to buy rubbing alcohol to revive her. This failed and the driver took the couple to a clinic nearby.

Since Maria was under the legal working age, the foreman instructed Bautista to lie to the clinicians. To say that she was not working for the contractor, but had passed out while jogging.

They arrived at the clinic at 5:15 p.m. Maria was immediately rushed to a hospital with a temperature of 108.4 degrees, far beyond what the human body can tolerate. Maria’s heart stopped six times in the following two days before she died.

Besides water, employers are required to provide shaded areas and allow workers to take five-minute breaks as necessary to cool down. Bosses also must train their supervisors and employees and have a written training program ready for inspection if a Cal-OSHA official requests one.

Family members and the United Farm Workers say those laws were broken by Merced Farm Labor.

The new requirements that Cal-OSHA is supposed to enforce are a direct result of the deaths of three farm workers in the heat wave of 2005. In total, there have been 10 deaths over the past four years. Maria’s death—like the previous deaths—was entirely preventable.

Citations and paltry fines assessed by Cal-OSHA are not enough to save workers’ lives. A movement is needed to hold the capitalists responsible. “There should be justice for what happened,” said Bautista. “It wasn’t just. It wasn’t fair what they did.”

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