Migrant workers march over deaths in the sun
Pregnant Mexican girl is latest victim of Californian farms' harsh conditions
Dan Glaister, Los Angeles
Saturday June 7 2008
María Isabel Vázquez Jiménez had been in the US just three months.
She and her fiance left their village of San Sebastián Nopalera in
Mexico's Sierra Madre range and crossed the border to California,
where they found work picking grapes.
But last month, her dream of earning money to send to her widowed
mother came to a tragic end. With temperatures in the 30s,
17-year-old Vázquez Jiménez was midway through her fourth day working
a nine and a half-hour shift when she fainted. Her fiance, Florentino
Bautista, 19, held her in his arms as a foreman looked on.
"She looked like she was in pain and she wasn't reacting to
anything," Bautista told an interviewer. "I told her to be strong,
and that I was with her. I thought maybe she could hear me."
The foreman told the couple to sit in the sweltering van used to
bring them to the fields near Lodi. When Vázquez Jiménez failed to
revive, he suggested they buy rubbing alcohol to bring her round.
When that failed, a driver took the couple to hospital. At the
hospital she was found to be in a coma with a temperature of 42C
(108.4F). She was also found to be two months' pregnant. She died two
Her death has once again brought to the fore the conditions that
migrant labourers, many of them without documentation, face in one of
the world's largest agricultural areas. Since 2005 there have been 23
suspected heat-related fatalities among California's 450,000 seasonal
agricultural workers. There was no water, no shade and no toilet in
the area where Vázquez Jiménez was picking grapes.
Three years ago, following the heat-related deaths of four Mexican
farmworkers, California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, passed a
measure to ensure that farmworkers receive adequate rest breaks and
water, and that supervisors are trained to deal with medical
emergencies. But the measure, say critics, has not been enforced with
sufficient vigour. The state employs just 62 inspectors to monitor its farms.
This week, a march of 500 people left Lodi for Sacramento, the state
capital, to bring attention to the young woman's death. Headed by
three caskets - one representing Vázquez Jiménez, another her unborn
child, and a third for the other victims of heat-related illness -
marchers demanded better conditions for farmworkers, and insisted
that the young woman's death would not be in vain.
"The deaths of María Isabel Vázquez Jiménez and her unborn child are
hard to accept because they didn't need to happen," Arturo Rodriguez,
president of the United Farm Workers union, told the crowd in Sacramento.
"This pilgrimage," he continued, is a reminder, "that farm workers
like María Isabel are not agricultural implements to be used and discarded."
His concerns were echoed by Schwarzenegger, who met the young woman's
family and subsequently issued a statement promising to get tough
with farm contractors who flout the regulations. "Employers or labour
contractors who do not comply with the heat illdespiteness prevention
standards will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,"
Schwarzenegger said. "My administration will rigorously enforce the
heat regulations I signed into law in 2005."
Speaking as the march set out on Sunday, Bautista said that the
foreman had phoned him while he was on the way to the hospital
warning him not to tell the hospital that his fiancee had been
working in the fields. "Say she became sick because she was jogging
to get exercise," the young man recounted. "Since she's underage, it
will create big problems for us."
The contractor that hired Vázquez Jiménez, Merced Farm Labor, has not
commented on the death. The company was issued with three citations
in 2006 for exposing workers to heatstroke, failing to train workers
on heat stress prevention and not installing toilets at the work
site. It has also failed to pay $2,250 (about £1,150) in fines,
according to a government spokesman.
Since the death, the company has made changes at the site where
Vázquez Jiménez had been working, according to her fiance's brother,
who still works for the company at the site, earning $8 an hour.
"They're taking care of everything now, and are putting water all
over the place due to what happened," said José Luis Vázquez Jiménez,
20. "But there's still no shade."
The dead woman's brother, speaking from their home village in the
state of Oaxaca, gave expression to the family's grief. "She went [to
the US] on foot, and she came back in a box," he said.
Farmworker's death was rare exception, ag leaders say
By GARANCE BURKE and JOHN HOLLAND
last updated: June 07, 2008
The weather has cooled in the three weeks since the death of Maria
Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a teenage farmworker overcome by heat in a
vineyard near Farmington.
But the debate still simmers over state rules aimed at keeping other
workers from the same fate.
Farm labor leaders said the danger persists despite rules put in
place in 2005, after a spate of deaths.
"The farmworker is not an agricultural implement," said Arturo
Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers. "People need to feel
that the life of Maria Isabel, of whoever it is who's working in the
fields, is important."
Ag leaders said the girl's death was a tragic but rare case. They
said they constantly work to assure that crews, most of them hired by
contractors, get the required water, shade and other protections.
"There has been a lot of activity by the Farm Bureau and other
associations to get the word out," said Paul Wenger, a Modesto-area
nut grower and first vice president of the California Farm Bureau
Federation. "I think it's being heeded pretty well."
This group has publicized the rules through its weekly newspaper,
through English and Spanish cards that workers can carry, and through
its Farm Employers Labor Service Web site.
Vasquez Jimenez, an illegal Mexican immigrant, collapsed while
pruning vines in 100-degree heat May 14, investigators said. She died
two days later at Lodi Memorial Hospital. She was working for Merced
Farm Labor, a contractor in Atwater. The vineyard is owned by West
Coast Grape Farming, a division of Bronco Wine Co. in Ceres.
State officials said they are revoking the contractor's license. It
had three citations in 2006 for exposing workers to heat stroke,
failing to train workers on heat stress prevention and failing to
have toilets at the work site.
Officials are considering criminal charges against Merced Farm Labor.
"Employers or labor contractors who do not comply with the heat
illness prevention standards will be prosecuted to the full extent of
the law," according to Gov. Schwarzenegger.
Vasquez Jimenez's fiancé, Florentino Bautista, who was in the
vineyard when she collapsed, said a foreman recommended that she rest
in a hot van and be revived with rubbing alcohol.
But Elias Armenta, safety coordinator for the contractor, said in a
statement that Bautista refused to call medical personnel and said he
would take care of Vasquez Jimenez.
Her death prompted the UFW to organize a march this week from Lodi to
Sacramento. In a speech outside the Capitol, Rodriguez said workers
need enforcement of the rules and union representation to give them
"And when growers know it is easier for farmworkers to organize and
bring in the union, employers are much more careful about obeying the
law because they don't want to give the union an advantage," he said.
Farm Bureau attorney Carl Borden said most employers follow the rules.
"California farmers are already subject to the most stringent
requirements in the nation," he said. "If they were not being
followed, there would be many, many more tragic incidents."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com