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Farmworker safety agency is needed in California, says report

The pandemic “simply became another life-threatening hazard” among many facing indigenous farmworkers in California, said a report released on Monday. Based on surveys and interviews of more than 300 workers, the report called for the creation of a state agency dedicated to enforcing agricultural safety rules.

In its present form, the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health “is too centralized and does not work for indigenous campesinos,” said the report by the COVID-19 Farmworker Study, a collaborative research project facilitated by the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS). The report, “Experts in their fields,” recounted safety and wage violations, including uneven adherence to COVID-19 safeguards.

“Indigenous campesinos feel that more training around and information about COVID-19 is needed at worksites. Several shared that foremen and supervisors sometimes interpreted COVID-19 guidances too loosely,” said the report. Half of farm labor contractors and six of every 10 growers provided masks to workers; 70% of packing houses provided them.

At least a quarter of California’s 400,000 to 800,000 farmworkers are indigenous, said CIRS researcher Dvera Saxton during an online discussion, meaning they came from communities in southern Mexico and Central America, where dozens of languages are spoken and an array of cultural, medical, and agricultural practices are followed. Since the 1940s, “campesinos from indigenous communities in Mexico have been migrating to California to work in the fields and packing houses,” said the report. For many of them, Spanish is a second language.

“While all essential workers put themselves at risk when they show up for work during the COVID-19 pandemic, farmworkers face additional risks because they lack critical social safety net support afforded to others. The situation is even worse for indigenous workers,” said Sarait Martinez, executive director of Centro Binacional para le Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño.

During the pandemic, indigenous farmworkers experienced greater job and income insecurity, unhealthy and overcrowded housing, and language barriers. They continue to “experience harsh and life-threatening circumstances despite the return to normal routines for other members of U.S. society,” said the report.

The report had 10 recommendations, beginning with comprehensive immigration reform and livable salaries and including access to high-quality healthcare, better housing, and better internet access for children attending classes online.

Fourth on the list was “creation of a new agricultural-worker specific agency that is empowered, staffed, and funded to enforce all agricultural workplace health, hygiene, and safety regulations, including COVID-19 and wildfire smoke guidelines.” It would be buttressed by county-level “accountability committees” of farmworkers, community groups, and allies “who can ensure this new state agency enforces the law.”

California has many worthy labor laws on the books but “the state is failing campesinos,” said the report.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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