Supporting basic rights for farmworkers

This op-ed piece by Ken Hough was published on Friday, February 12, 2016 in the Santa Maria Times:

After recent research revealed widespread labor abuses in Central Coast agricultural fields, farmworkers, advocates, and community organizations began advocating for a Farmworker Bill of Rights. They are asking the Ventura and Santa Barbara County Boards of Supervisors to set and enforce basic standards for agricultural labor. 

If passed, this would mark the first time county governments have used their powers to address the wide range of labor abuses common in agricultural work, including extreme overwork, wage theft, and health and safety risks.

The campaign is supported by over 80 elected officials, local businesses and organizations. These include faith-based, labor, environmental, immigrant, student, community and farmworker organizations.

Based on nearly 600 interviews with farmworkers, research by labor attorneys, and meetings with government agency officials, farm owners, and farmworker advocates, Central Coast United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) developed a Farmworker Bill of Rights to address three major issues.

The first is curbing extreme overwork. Standards need to be set for realistic rest breaks. Workers should have at least ten minutes of rest after reaching a break area with water, shade and bathrooms.  In many large farms, workers spend their whole break walking across the field to get to a bathroom and have no time to rest in the shade.

The second issue is wage theft. The county should hire investigators to ensure employers follow wage and work-hour laws.  Farmworkers are often paid less than they earned, forced to work during their breaks, or forced to work before or after their shift without pay.  These are all forms of wage theft. 

Meaningful penalties need to be established for wage theft. CAUSE proposes fines of $100 per employee per day for violations, as well as back pay and possible revocation of the county business tax certificate.  Without real penalties, employers have less incentive to follow the law. 

The third issue is protecting health and safety. Grant funding should be provided to local service organizations to conduct health and safety education workshops for farmworkers, providing information on their rights related to heat and water, pesticides, safety equipment, injuries, and sexual assault.  Pregnant women need to be protected from pesticide exposure. This can be accomplished by guaranteeing unpaid leave during pregnancy with job status protected.  Exposure to certain pesticides is linked to serious reproductive health issues. 

No woman, fearing for her livelihood, should have to work near toxic pesticides during pregnancy. 

Workers need to be protected from retaliation. An anonymous tip hotline should be created and a penalty established for retaliation against a worker who files a complaint.  The threat of retaliation for complaining about working conditions creates a culture of fear that prevents workers from speaking up.

Farms need to be inspected to make sure workers have access to clean bathrooms.  Lack of sanitary field toilets is a major problem for workers, and creates a public-health concern contributing to E. coli and other diseases spread through fresh produce.

Growers who want to transition away from harmful pesticides or reduce their use should be provided with resources and information to help them make changes.

Farmworkers do some of the most difficult, dangerous and underpaid work in our community.  Too many face constant labor abuses and live in fear of speaking up.  The people who work to put food on our tables deserve to be treated with dignity.  It should be known across the country that the fresh produce you buy from the Central Coast was produced under humane conditions.  

We need our county supervisors to consider and pass the Farmworker Bill of Rights to ensure basic human rights are being protected in our community.

Ken Hough is executive director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN). He can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward is a progressive look at local issues.