“What choice do we have?” US farm workers battle deadly heat wave | Climate news

Arvin, California, United States — Martha Fuentes woke up at 3:30 a.m. last Thursday to prepare for her daily commute in the grape fields of Kern County, California, one of the major vegetable-producing regions in the United States. She wore a wide-brimmed hat and a colorful bandana decorated with butterflies to protect herself from the heat that will make her job very strenuous, even with rest breaks and cool water provided by her employer.

When she started packing fruit at 5:30 a.m., the air was already a balmy 26.7 degrees Celsius (80 degrees Fahrenheit). By 10am it had risen to over 32C and sweat was streaming down Fuentes’ face.

“It’s going to be warmer this year,” she told Al Jazeera at work.

By the time Fuentes left the fields at 2 p.m., temperatures had risen above 40°C, prompting the National Weather Service to issue an extreme heat warning for the area.

“High temperatures of 106 to 114 degrees every afternoon,” it said. “Extreme heat will greatly increase the potential for heat-related illness, especially for those who work or participate in outdoor activities.”

Martha Fuentes has worked on the farm for the past 31 years and said she has felt firsthand the effect of rising temperatures [Photo: Brian Osgood/Al Jazeera]

But as North America teeters on record temperatures due to climate change, Fuentes and many like her feel they have little choice but to move on to the fields.

Sandwiched between low wages and stifling heat, the largely poor undocumented workers who harvest the bounty of California’s fields face impossible choices between wages they can’t afford and temperatures their bodies can’t tolerate.

“The heat is too much,” Fuentes said. “But what choice do we have? We cannot afford to stop.”

Partial protection

Many farm workers work in rising temperatures with little protection to protect their health, proponents say, even as heatwaves that led to hundreds of deaths swept the western United States and Canada.

States hit by the heatwaves, such as California, Oregon, and Washington, all have different state laws on the books protecting farm workers.

For example, California, where Fuentes works, mandates a 10-minute shaded rest break every two hours when temperatures rise above 35°C, as well as access to cool water, but enforcement of these laws in the large agricultural sector of condition is not perfect, and there are no temperatures above which the work must be discontinued.

Farm worker Jose Lopez is one of several harvesting grapes on a farm near Arvin, California in the United States, where high temperatures make work more difficult [Courtesy: Brian Osgood/Al Jazeera]

The latest bout of extreme weather has led to renewed efforts by activists and farm workers to strengthen and expand protection at the federal level rather than the current piecemeal system.

“There are no federal standards that require employers to provide farm workers with water, shade, rest and bathroom access when working in extreme heat,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of organization for the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. “This gives employers a free hand to push their employees’ bodies further than they can bear.”

On June 26, a 38-year-old migrant farm worker named Sebastian Francisco Perez of Guatemala died at a nursery and farm in St. Paul, Oregon, after working for hours in temperatures over 37.8C.

On July 7, Oregon Governor Kate Brown ordered the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to introduce emergency standards that would expand employers’ obligations to provide farm workers with shade, cool water and time to rest. Oregon OSHA is still in the process of establishing permanent standards for outdoor workers dealing with extreme heat.

Unfortunately, Perez’s death isn’t an aberration: A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that farm workers die from heatstroke 20 times more than all civilian workers in the US.

A long list of names

Perez’s name can now be inscribed alongside others such as Asuncion Valdivia, 53, and Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, 17, farm workers who died from heat exposure in California and are now used as symbols in the struggle to establish new protections.

Valdivia died in 2004 after harvesting grapes for 10 hours at temperatures as high as 40.5C. Vasquez died in 2008 after he was reportedly denied access to water and shade during a nine-hour shift that tied up vines in which temperatures rose above 35C. At the hospital, her fiancé said he heard she was two months pregnant for the first time.

Farm workers and advocates want the United States to introduce federal protections instead of the current piecemeal system, where laws on working in extreme heat vary from state to state [Photo: Brian Osgood/Al Jazeera]

Several pieces of legislation now bear the names of Valdivia and Vasquez.

In 2005, California passed groundbreaking heat standards that were implemented after a series of deaths of farm workers from heat exposure led to measures. The standards were later renamed in Vasquez’s honor and have subsequently been tightened several times since 2005.

But not all states have those provisions in effect, which is why Democrats introduced the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act in March this year to set federal heat standards that mandate the provision of shade, water and rest for farm workers.

A vulnerable workforce

But more action is needed, workers and advocates say. Despite being considered “essential workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers say the conditions under which they work do not match the honorific.

“Some companies treat employees well, but others care more about the fruit than those of us who pick it,” said Carolina, a 44-year-old farm worker outside Delano, California, who asked her not to be her last name. because she is concerned about retaliation from her employer.

Carolina is five months pregnant and faced with the choice between staying home and losing pay, or picking grapes when the temperature rises above 40.5 degrees Celsius.

“The heat is too much. Sometimes my head feels light, sometimes I vomit. Workers have passed out in the fields,” Carolina told Al Jazeera.

By nature, agricultural labor often involves hours of strenuous work while exposed to the elements. But that doesn’t just explain the disproportionate risks farm workers face as temperatures rise, researchers say.

Yuridia Meza is one of the workers at the grape farm near Arvin, California [Photo: Brian Osgood/Al Jazeera]

Marc Schenker, director of the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at the University of California, Davis, told Al Jazeera that factors such as workers’ immigration status and low wages also contribute.

“California has better laws on the books than most,” Schenker said. “But the reality of being poor and undocumented is you’re less likely to speak up if those rules are broken.”

Even when heat standards are met by farm employers, the demands of productivity can still push workers to the limits of what their bodies can tolerate, lawyers say.

This is especially true for piecework, a style of farm work where workers are paid by the pound or by the box, rather than by the hour. With lower productivity translating into lower wages, workers may feel pressured to skip things like water breaks so they can avoid the restroom.

This pressure increases when piecework is combined with the shorter schedules some farms employ as temperatures rise.

“You might have a situation where an employee only works six hours instead of eight, but during that time they put extra strain on their bodies as they try to make up for the lost hours,” Schenker explains. “A lot of the problems have to do with wages that keep workers from making ends meet.”

Rising temperatures

North America experienced its warmest month on record in June, with an average temperature of 1.2°C above the 1991-2020 average, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), the European Union’s climate monitoring service.

“These heat waves don’t happen in a vacuum,” C3S scientist Julien Nicolas said when the data was released. “They take place in a global climate environment that is warming and making them more likely to occur.”

As climate scientists warn that extreme heat will become more routine and intense in the coming years, a conversation about what needs to be done to protect workers is gaining momentum.

“Climate resilience was put on the radar for me when workers breathed the smoky air during the wildfires without even getting a mask,” said Genevieve Flores-Haro, associate director at the Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), an organization targeting on the rights of native farm workers on the central California coast.

Rising temperatures threaten to change not only the way major agricultural states like California grow crops, but also the risks workers face in extreme heat. [Photo: Brian Osgood/Al Jazeera]

“These are communities on the front lines of the climate crisis, but they are often disregarded in policy making,” Flores-Haro told Al Jazeera.

According to statistics from California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), the agency received between four and six heat-related complaints from farm workers in June 2020.

This year, that number was between 22 and 27, although Cal/OSHA emphasized that several factors contribute to heat-related complaints and that in 2020 there were fewer than average.

Back in the grape fields outside Arvin, Fuentes drank cool water from a cone-shaped paper cup supplied by her employer.

She has worked as a farm laborer in California for 31 years and has felt every temperature rise thus far. When asked if the shorter hours put in place to absorb the heat meant less money, she sighed.

“Yes, less money. But what can we do? There’s nothing we can do,” Fuentes said. “There are still workers on the land in their 70s. Their situation is the same as mine. They cannot afford to stop.”

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