Thursday, July 28, 2005

Life In America

Salud Zamudio-Rodriguez
Died For Your Salad

The LA Times reminds us how far we have to go in this country. Salud Zamudio-Rodriguez died so that a wealthy California grower could maximize the utilization of his farm equipment. He died so you could have a low cost bell pepper to cut up in your salad.

"We watched him dying in the field," said Soledad Reyes, 43, who had been working next to him.

As the tractor moved through the fields, it pulled a conveyor belt onto which the pickers dumped their buckets of bell peppers, Reyes said in an interview. Typically, the tractor driver sets a reasonable speed, enabling the workers to drink water and still harvest three buckets of peppers every 15 minutes, she said.

But from 12:15 to 2:45 p.m. that day, the tractor driver, at the behest of the grower's foreman, set a pace that required them to pick six buckets every 15 minutes, she said.

"In all my years of picking crops, I have never worked that fast," Reyes said. "All of us were skipping plants to keep up, but Salud was trying to pick every pepper."

[...] At some point, she said, Zamudio-Rodriguez walked up to the crew boss and collapsed in his arms.

The crew boss took off his hat and tried to fan him. Workers set him in the shade of an adjacent almond orchard and tried to give him water. But it did no good.

[...] On the way to Bakersfield's Mercy Hospital, still deep in the fields, Zamudio-Rodriguez died.

Zamudio-Rodriguez was one of three farm workers to die in the California Central Valley in the last three weeks. Two other workers died in the intense 100+ degree heat. Like Zamudio-Rodriguez they were victims of a farm culture that values equipment more than people and resists even the most basic attempts to lighten the burden on its workers.

California legislators are debating a bill that calls for growers to provide shade and additional rest period for workers when temperatures exceed 95 degrees. It seems simple and prudent, but for growers its not productive.

"It's not like the industry didn't have a warning," said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez. "Last year, after the death of Asuncion Valdivia from heatstroke, we sent letters to the major table grape growers. We asked them to take voluntary steps to deal with the heat.

"Not one grower responded to our call or implemented any changes."

Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, said agriculture has not ignored the issue.

"For a year now, we've been holding seminars with growers, supervisors and workers on how to recognize and prevent heat-related illness," he said.

Nothing like a seminar in an air conditioned conference room to prepare people like Zamudio-Rodriguez to be worked to death in the heat by a grower more concerned with getting a field cleared than preventing death or injury to his workers.

Something to think about while enjoying a meal.