Toward a Farmworker Bill of Rights

May 17, 2016 -- Jamie Way

Partnership for Working Families affiliate CAUSE is organizing farmworkers in California’s Central Coast to raise working standards through a county-level policy called the Farmworker Bill of Rights. While efforts to leverage the power of cities to advance minimum wage increases, sick and family leave, fair scheduling and wage theft enforcement have been concentrated in urban metros, CAUSE is expanding this fight to rural communities.

CAUSE began by conducting nearly 600 in-person interviews with farmworkers throughout two counties of California’s Central Coast. The surveys were published in a report detailing the extreme overwork, wage theft and health and safety risks faced by farmworkers, as well as the culture of fear and retaliation that prevents existing state and federal labor standards from protecting them.

Regularly underpaid wages are common, and the piece-rate pay typical in California’s agricultural fields makes it difficult for workers to prove when they are victims of wage theft. Farmworkers are exempt from federal overtime laws and often 10 minute rest breaks are spent walking across vast fields to use the bathroom, with many fields lacking access to clean bathrooms and drinking water. The Central Coast is a hotspot for toxic fumigant pesticides and workers often experience pesticide poisoning symptoms including skin rashes, eye irritation, nausea, breathing problems, high rates of cancer and negative birth outcomes from working in the fields while pregnant. Workers rarely file complaints because they are highly vulnerable, as most are undocumented, living paycheck-to-paycheck, and often speak indigenous languages like Mixteco.

CAUSE, local community partners and Partnership for Working Families, have developed a comprehensive set of policies that county governments in agricultural communities can pursue to improve working conditions for farmworkers. The Farmworker Bill of Rights includes three major areas. First, it curbs extreme overwork by ensuring workers get real rest breaks with 10 minutes to use water, shade and bathrooms and preventing farmworker women from losing their jobs for taking time off during pregnancy. Second, it cracks down on wage theft by hiring county staff to help with investigations of unpaid wages, increasing penalties for violations and establishing an anonymous hotline for complaints. Third, it protects health and safety by providing health and safety education for farmworkers, inspecting farms for access to clean bathrooms, helping growers who want to transition away from harmful pesticides and aiding victims of sexual assault.

The campaign has brought together a diverse set of allies, from women’s organizations concerned with pregnancy leave and sexual assault, to environmental organizations wanting to reduce pesticide use. It has also triggered intense opposition from the industry, led by Reiter, the largest berry growing company in the world, headquartered in Oxnard. Farmworkers with CAUSE have testified at public forums and rallies, spoken before county supervisors and industry representatives and told their stories to reporters, despite overwhelming fear of retaliation.

These brave immigrant workers are leading the way by demanding dignity and justice for those who do some of the most difficult, dangerous work on earth to put food on all of our tables. You can learn more about their efforts here.