Published on February 18th, 2011 | by Zachary Shahan1
Teenage Farmworker Death Requires Justice & Change
I’ve covered the horrendous topic of child labor on farms in the U.S. in the past, as well as Stephen Colbert’s testimony to Congress on immigrant farmworkers in which he almost broke into tears. Now, I’m bringing to you the story of one young farmworker’s death in California, the fight for justice in this case, and the hope that with justice could come change.
Of course, as covered in the past, farmworkers are explicitly exempt from U.S. labor laws, meaning that children can work in the fields, the working conditions can be horrendous, and the pay can be (and normally is) absolute crap. “Pesticide poisonings, child labor, modern-day slavery and death from heat exhaustion remain common occurrences in our fields as a result,” the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) writes.
In 2008, 17-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez died from heat stroke when her body temperature rose to 108 degrees working in a California vineyard while pregnant (I’m sure she had no other practical option but to work in those conditions).
Unfortunately, dying from heat stroke is actually not a rare occurrence in California’s Central Valley. “In the four years leading up to her death, 10 farmworkers had died of heat stroke in the fields; less than a year later, yet another farmworker died.”
Until the system is considerably changed, this will continue happening. It could be easy for us to move on from this article and block this out, but what kind of humans are we if we do? We eat food picked by these farmworkers, and yet we all-too-often assume it’s not our responsibility to ensure they have decent working conditions.
PAN is working to get Maria’s case fully prosecuted to both achieve some form of justice in her particular story and to try to stir up some change in the farm labor system.
“Right now, the prosecuting attorney is poised to make a plea deal that would allow those responsible for her death to get off with community service and minimal fines,” PAN writes.
“Please join us and the United Farm Workers in urging District Attorney James Willet to prosecute those responsible for Maria Isabel’s death to the fullest extent of the law.”
Farm labor contractors and officials have received plenty of requests to make the situation more humane for farmworkers. The change is yet to come. We need to demand justice in the courts to push for this change now. “Only when it becomes clear to farm labor contractors and the officials tasked with keeping them in line that the American public will demand justice for the men, women and children on the frontlines of our food system – only then will these abuses become unthinkable.”
And beyond that, get informed, and help to stimulate change on this issue.
For the modern-day indentured servants you get your food from.
Top Photo via PAN
Bottom Photo via flickr user St0rmz