Imagine for a moment, the sun appearing over the horizon as the temperature starts to rise. The smoke you knew was there before becomes visible. You’re a few hours into your 10-hour shift and your body is already tired from the laborious work you have performed. This is the current experience of many farm workers as historic, catastrophic fires rage in California.
Due to the necessity of crops for our food supply and the time-sensitive nature of agricultural products, farm workers are a vital part of society. They provide the labor power required to harvest tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, sweet corn, peaches, nectarines, and many other crops this season. Without them, the food on our tables would simply not be there.
Even as fires in California cause unhealthy air quality all over the state, farm workers are still working hard. Under CAL/OSHA law, employers are required to “Provide proper respiratory protection equipment,” such as an N95 mask if current AQI reaches 151 or more. While these protections are state law, they are not always adhered to. A farm worker in Santa Cruz stated he and his coworkers were not given adequate masks to protect from smoke inhalation. (Earth Island Journal)
This claim is further supported by a poll conducted by the United Farm Workers showing that “84% of farm workers have not been given N95 masks from their employers.” In a capitalist society, we can see the contradiction of corporations calling workers “essential” and then by either lack of preparation or unwillingness fail to provide essential protections.
There is also the issue of wages. While farm workers put themselves on the line in harsh conditions, the average farm worker makes between $15,000 and $17,499 per year. Also, as recently as 2016 California became the first state to pass legislation that requires employers to start paying overtime pay to farm workers. Assembly Bill 1066, which became effective on January 1, 2017, has a phase-in period that began in 2019 and ends in 2022 that finally secures overtime pay for farm workers when they exceed eight hours in a day.
United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez summed it up best when he said “[farmworkers] are involved in the planting and the cultivation and the harvesting of the greatest abundance of food known in this society. They bring in so much food to feed you and me and the whole country and enough food to export to other places. The ironic thing and the tragic thing is that after they make this tremendous contribution, they don’t have any money or any food left for themselves.” (UFW)
All progressive and revolutionary people should stand in solidarity with the UFW’s call to action demanding proper protection for farm workers, who daily risk their health to put food on tables while being paid poverty wages. You can visit their website for more information about how you can help.