The women confronting California’s farm conditions

Female farmworkers face sexual assault, pesticide exposure and low wages.

 

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California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. Every month, in the Letter from California, we chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West.

Early in the morning on May 5, approximately 50 farmworkers were in the midst of harvesting cabbage for Dan Andrews Farms in Bakersfield, at the southern end of California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley, when they suddenly felt nauseous. “We started getting an odor, pesticide odor, coming in from the mandarin orchards west of our field,” supervisor Efron Zavalza told local news channel KGET.

The previous evening, an orchard next door had been sprayed with Vulcan, an organophosphate-based chemical that is highly toxic. “I’m not pointing fingers or saying it was done incorrectly,” Zavalza said. “It was just an unfortunate thing, the way it was drifted.” One person was immediately taken to the hospital and farming operations came to a halt. More than half of the others took ill and headed home before medical aid made it to the site.

This is a common scenario in California’s agricultural fields. “Pesticide drift is not something that happens sometimes — it’s an issue for farmworkers every day,” says Suguet López, executive director of Líderes Campesinas, a statewide organization led by female farmworkers. It’s the kind of issue her organization is taking on, part of a broader movement of women farmworkers in California. These campesinas, as they’re called, take on issues that affect women farmworkers, from pesticides to sexual assault, and they do so by encouraging this largely vulnerable and undocumented population to organize for better working conditions.

Migrant workers harvest corn in Gilroy, California.

López was born in urban Los Angeles but raised in Mexico. The granddaughter of a bracero, or manual laborer who came to the U.S. as part of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement of 1942, López never worked in the fields — though she lived near them south of the border, in Baja. In the mid-nineties, she witnessed how the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) pushed many farm-working families to migrate to the U.S., while introducing the widespread use of pesticides among the farmers who stayed, including those in her own family. These days, pesticide use is standard across both countries, she says.

“Nearly 1 million agricultural laborers in California grow the food that ends up on dinner tables all over the U.S. — and they often get sick in the process,” she in an editorial two years ago, calling for better pesticide safety protections. “Farmworkers experience some 20,000 pesticide poisonings each year, partly because of the lack of safety training and standards, protective equipment, or knowledge about workplace chemicals.”

Little has changed for farmworkers since López spoke out. This past March, the Trump administration canceled a ban on chlorpyrifos, a common pesticide used on citrus, apples and other crops, saying growers are not required by law to immediately call emergency medical assistance when their workers are exposed to dangerous levels of pesticides. Many workers report not wearing gloves, or using other safety equipment or special training that would protect them from injuries or exposure. And any immigrant farmworkers are afraid to speak up about this for fear of getting fired. Those who choose to report violations do so without whistleblower protections.

I met López a couple of months ago at the in Santa Barbara, California, where she spoke at a panel on food production. Shy and quick to smile, she began to address the crowd by bringing up a difficult subject. “Imagine doing a 10 to 12-hour shift and earning $15,000 a year,” she asked the mostly college-educated, urban audience sitting before her. “Imagine having to face sexual harassment in the workplace almost every single day.” A scan of the faces around the room showed few had been expecting to hear about this when it comes to food production.

In her role, López is frequently on the road, traversing California from south to north to meet with women field workers for candid conversations they wouldn’t typically get a chance to have in their places of employment. “Despite facing gender violence at home, many of these women tell me about going to work and facing assault there too,” López says. “Pesticide exposure affects their reproductive health, and they don’t make enough money to afford childcare. So I look at the intersection of all these issues when advocating for the women in this movement.”

According to government surveys, there are an estimated 300,000 female farmworkers in the U.S., half of whom are in the country without papers. This makes these women (many of them young mothers) particularly vulnerable to deportation or to losing their low-wage seasonal jobs. In the worst cases, the fear pushes them to stay silent about abuses in their industry. What Líderes Campesinas does is simple: It gets these women in spread out rural areas to connect to one another and speak up.

At the time of Líderes Campesinas’ founding thirty years ago, sexual abuse was not associated with agricultural work. But this taboo began to lift around the time López joined the organization in 2006; a rare federal court in 2012 revealed how female workers had been subject to repeated sexual violence and harassment by crew bosses at a Washington farm over the years. A PBS Frontline found that despite repeated complaints of rape and assault by hundreds of female agricultural workers across the country, law enforcement has done little to prosecute possible crimes.

“We simply didn’t talk about sexual violence in the fields or even about domestic violence until, all of a sudden, so many women started to bring up the subject,” López says. Now she regularly hears from Líderes Campesinas’ 11 member chapters — from Sonoma County in the north to the Coachella Valley in the south — demanding the network to take on the subject in their monthly meetings, alongside pesticides, and human trafficking.

López’ work with Líderes Campesinas has been deeply shaped by the rapidly shifting political environment. Lately, Líderes Campesinas is taking on immigration enforcement as another top issue — they’re developing training for 100 police officers in Merced County, north of Los Angeles in the San Joaquin Valley, on how to assist farm worker victims of violence who may need to report crimes or who could qualify for a special U.S. visa.

In 2010, López saw a boon in engagement and membership when former President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law. Suddenly, there was “interest in preventative health care, in having access to public transportation in order to get to doctors’ appointments, in avoiding pesticides and becoming aware of their health impacts,” she said. The health law rallied female agricultural workers across the state like no other issue had before — until President Donald Trump’s hardened immigration policies were revealed last January.

In the month that followed, the women López spoke to were too scared to bring their kids to school and to report crimes or workplace violations, much less sign up for the state benefits they qualify for. So, she says, Líderes Campesinas convened a meeting. Sitting around in a circle, dozens of women echoed the same concerns about the possibility of losing their jobs, of ending up in detention or deportation proceedings. She asked them: ‘What are we going to do about it?’

“We may not be able to come up with a clear answer to what’s happening now, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have something to say,” López told them at the time. “We left our countries and have started new lives over before, so we know we are resilient.”

Contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles, California.