The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

California's San Joaquin Valley:
Blood in the fields

Aug 1, 2005

In California's San Joaquin Valley, three farm workers died of heat stroke while picking bell peppers, cantaloupes and grapes in 105 to 108 degree temperatures in mid-July.

It wasn't just the temperatures that killed these workers – but the absolutely barbaric working conditions. None of the farms provide shaded areas or water and sanitary facilities to their workforce, even when the temperature rises past 95 degrees. In the vineyards, for example, the farm owners don't even provide umbrellas and sorting tables. So the workers have to sort grapes while sitting on plastic sheets on the ground in the middle of the blazing sun. Besides that, instead of a 30-minute lunch break, which is supposed to be the law, the workers are often allowed only 15 minutes.

These farms are in one of the richest food producing regions in the world, where most of the best land is owned by a handful of big farm barons, who act with virtual impunity. Certainly, the "labor friendly" Democratic Party-dominated legislature has not dared challenge them with some form of farm legislation. As for Cal-OSHA, it has yet to finalize the writing of emergency labor regulations for farm workers – after 15 years of trying!

A week after the three deaths, thousands of farm workers staged an angry rally in the local town of Arvin. That – and more activities like that – can begin to change the situation farm workers face.