He’s Not Heavy, He’s An Illegal: farm worker safety debate

Summer marches on and in July’s triple digit heat 3 more farmworkers have died.

46-year-old Ramiro Carrillo passed away at his Selma, CA home after picking nectarines for about four hours in 112-degree heat at Sun Valley Packing. Two weeks ago 42-year-old Abdon Felix died after working in the fields at Sunview Vineyards near Delano, California. His body temperature was 108 degrees when he arrived at the hospital. Last month Jose Macarena, 64, collapsed in a field in Santa Barbara County and later died during a 110-degree day. How Many More Workers Will We Let Die in the Fields This Summer? ,Adriana Maestas, AlterNet, July 22, 2008.

In the debate that followed Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez‘s death and the UFW’s attempt the persuade Trader Joe’s to use their leverage to promote increased safety for field workers, an ugly truth was revealed. Some Americans feel that death from heat exhaustion is just punishment for entering this county illegally to work for less than minimum wage.

It is the hatefulness of the debate, Trader Joe’s failure to speak out and rising death toll that moves me to revisit this issue – again.

On my Two Buck Death Chuck post Bailey Hankins wrote:

You mean Two Buck Chuck kills people who break into my country as well as tasting great? I’m going to go buy a whole case!

For Hankins the mere fact that an worker is undocumented means that they deserve to die, and he, or she, has no compunction about pronouncing the death sentence. I quote Hankins so that Trader Joe’s understands the larger implication of their failure to take a stand. Saying nothing sends a message to people like Hankins that the death of an undocumented laborer is an acceptable by product of cheap goods.

Leisa Williams commented on the same post, offering support for Trader Joe’s and condemnation masked as sympathy for Maria.


Why didn’t Maria’s co-workers keep an eye on her? Why didn’t she take water with her? People who work these outdoor jobs need to hydrate the night before and the morning of. She had to know this, so why didn’t she? It is very sad but all the blame cannot be pinned onto TJ’s or the wineries/vineyards.

Was she here and working legally?

Leisa’s remarks are representative of the great majority of the “it’s their own fault” comments placing blame on the workers while absolving those with the real power – the companies who control working conditions. Leisa thinks that that Maria “had to know” that outdoor workers need to “hydrate the night before and morning of.”

It is a good thing Leisa doesn’t work for CAL OHSA.

Leisa, hydrating the night before and the morning of does not protect you when you are laboring in in the sun in 90+ temperatures.

Just in case you ever have to work under such harsh conditions let me break down the scenario for you. You are picked up by a bus to be taken to a farm to work for the day. Since California law requires employers to provide water, you do not take water with you. Even if you could bring your own water, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to carry the approximately two plus gallons necessary to get you through the day, with you as you worked. And even if you had water, you also need shade to stay safe. Again carrying your two plus gallons of water and an umbrella is just not feasible given the speed with which you must work.

You get to the field at 6:00AM. You are not given a water break until 10:30 AM. The water is a ten minute walk away and the foreman won’t give you enough time to get there and back without yelling at you. According to CAL OSHA regs you should have been given a gallon of water* by this time.

You are already hot; everyone is hot. Your body temperature starts to rise maybe from 98.6 degrees to 100.6 degrees. Since no one has been given the required water, maybe everyone’s temperatures are rising just that little bit. Maybe, just maybe, everyone at this point is miserable and reduced to just trying to get through the day. Maybe they are afraid, of getting docked in pay, of the foreman’s anger or being kicked off the job.

The company and the foreman know what’s going on – they have to know by law the risk and symptoms of heat exhaustion. They’ve been cited before. They know that they are breaking the law putting you and all the other workers at risk when they don’t provide shade and water.

They know and don’t care.

But you don’t know you’re in danger – the symptoms of heat exhaustion are painless. You know what painless means don’t you Leisa? It means you can be getting sick and not even realize it until it is too late.

Heat stress is a buildup of body heat generated either internally by muscle use or externally by the environment. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke result when the body is overwhelmed by heat. As the heat increases, body temperature and the heart rate rise painlessly. An increase in body temperature of two degrees Fahrenheit can affect mental functioning. A five degree Fahrenheit increase can result in serious illness or death. Emphasis added. National Ag Safety Database, Heat

By now all the workers are affected to some degree by the heat. Maybe they’re not thinking as clearly as they should be as they are try to keep up with the crew. Meanwhile your temperature is rising, maybe because you are more vulnerable because of age or health conditions. You’re confused but you keep working, soon your body temperature reaches 103.6.

You collapse.

At this point the foreman puts you in a hot van where your temperature continues to rise. It has been 9 hours since you, and your co-workers, have been in the heat without adequate water and shade. Your co-workers don’t have cars; they, just like you, are totally at the mercy of the company.

After an hour, the end of the work day, the foreman gets you to a clinic. By this time you are unresponsive and your temperature is 108 degrees. Your heart stops 6 times. You never wake up.

Now you tell me Leisa, does it matter whether you are an undocumented worker? Do we judge whether you deserve water and shade and basic human kindness based your immigration status?

I think not.

The hard reality is that undocumented laborers are here in this country to meet a need. Without undocumented workers crops would rot in the fields. The Department of Agriculture estimates that over 50% of field workers are undocumented – it has been this way for a long time. We must deal with the issue in a way that respects our shared humanity.

By the way Leisa, the straw company that hired Maria has been shut down for breaking the law. They knew that Lisa was underage, they knew they weren’t providing water and shade as required, and even after Maria died they kept on doing it.

No one is suggesting that Trader Joe’s is at fault – what the UFW and people of conscience are asking is that Trader Joe’s use its leverage to push for safer working conditions.

As for the company and vineyards – in my view they are at fault. They may try to hide behind labor contractors but they must know what is going on in their fields.

*California law heat regulations require that employers provide:

1. SHADE for workers during rest breaks who are trying to prevent heat illness or recover from it:

2. PAID RECOVERY PERIODS: Workers feeling the effect of heat must have access to a shaded area for no less than five minutes (and as long as they need) as many times in the day as they need it. If the worker is unable to
work because of the heat, the employer can send the worker home for care.

3. DRINKING WATER: One quart per employee per hour for the entire work shift.

4. TRAINING: For supervisors and workers. Must include symptoms of heat illness, how to evaluate and control them, the importance of drinking water, and procedures for providing emergency medical services.

More information:

The Immigration Debate NPR

Mexican-Origin Population in California: Health Fact Sheet

UFW – California Heat Regulations


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Judy @ Five Husbands reviews “Instructions from the Cook” | Brewed Fresh Daily
  2. pamajama
    Aug 03, 2008 @ 17:00:42

    This is all so sad. A majority of people, I think, refuse to take on the pain of anyone else until it hits them personally. It’s easier to look at the undocumented worker as if they’re not human. A good deal of the people who are anxious to push them out of the country consider themselves “Good Christians.” It’s all very much a great big mess. If Maria had tried to go for an abortion — as I believe she was pregnant — there would have been people picketing the clinic. They would have been so much more helpful delivering water to a field.


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