History, Housing, Pesticides, Undocumented Workers, Working Conditions

Slave-Like Labor Persists in the Coachella Valley

From Truth-Out.org, “Slave-Like Labor Persists in the Coachella Valley” by Evaggelos Vallianatos, 8 Apr 2011.

(Photo: Marilynn Waters)

(Photo: Marilynn Waters)

On February 11, 2011, I joined a small number of professors and students of Pomona College for a day’s field trip to Coachella Valley in Southern California.

In 2007, some 350 Coachella agribusiness companies earned $486 million from cultivating grapes, citrus, dates and vegetables in 56,453 acres.

The professors and students, under the leadership of the outstanding professor of documentary photography and art, Sheila Pinkel, were planning to photograph farm workers harvesting crops. I wanted to see farm workers in the fields of agribusiness. I was curious whether their work today is any less hazardous or arduous than what it had been in the late 1970s and 1980s when I studied them.

At that time, in 1979, I started working for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). One of my responsibilities was to monitor farm workers. I did that dutifully – and with all the eagerness and emotion one brings to an emergency. My memos to senior EPA officials painted a horror story: farm workers cultivating fields and harvesting crops under the slave-like conditions that John Steinbeck described in 1939 in his book “Grapes of Wrath.”

Farm workers in the 1980s were not starving like those of the 1930s. There were no dust bowls in the 1980s. However, farm workers remained largely rootless, migrating from field to field and state to state. In addition, and this was why the EPA showed interest in the health of farm laborers, the farm hands of the 1980s, in contrast to their brethren of the 1930s, had a grave enemy: pesticides.

So, I reported to the EPA that farm workers in the United States were like experimental animals, exposed to a variety of poisons known to cause adverse health effects from headaches, skin rashes and diarrhea to more deadly diseases like neurological disorders and cancer.

The EPA reacted to my reports with indifference verging on hostility, doing almost nothing to protect farm workers from the dangers of agribusiness.

In the 1970s, the EPA learned from studies it had funded that, in fact, pesticides caused brain damage to humans who had come in touch with them. Second, cancer from pesticides was an epidemic in rural America. The EPA researchers discovered that farmers were likely to die from cancer at twice the rate of city folk. Farm workers and others living close to farms were not that far behind farmers in suffering the same effects.

The closer we got getting to Coachella, the more those memories were coming to the fore.

Once at Coachella, we went to the offices of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a federally funded program designed to do some good for a population at the bottom of American society. Rural Legal Assistance in California and other states remains the last resort for legal advice and representation to extremely poor and disenfranchised rural people. But in the minds of the politicians funding this program, the intent was to use it to defang rural inequalities, particularly those bedeviling farm labor.

Our CRLA speaker was Megan Beaman, a young woman from Iowa who became a lawyer in order to help farm workers. Beaman started her presentation with numbers. She said 14,000 to 28,000 farm workers moved through the farms of Coachella every year. Fifty-seven percent of those workers were undocumented; 90 percent of the workers were from Mexico and some from El Salvador. Immigration agents stay away from Coachella.

Beaman then turned her attention to the 3,000 to 5,000 farm workers who live year round in Coachella. These workers, known as Purhepechas, are from Michoacan, a state in Mexico. They speak neither Spanish nor English, but their own language. They rent houses that compare with slums in Latin America. Their “trailer park” is on the land of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Reservation. An American Indian, Harvey Duro, is the owner of the trailer park also known as Duroville. Duro turned his 40-acre “park” into a cash cow, providing the Purhepechas with the rudiments of housing with problematic to intolerable conditions for water, garbage disposal, electricity and sewage.

CRLA came to the assistance of the Mexican farm workers stuck on the Indian reservation and, in 2008, a district court put Duro’s land in receivership. This means a not-for-profit organization is now running Duroville.

This is one of the main roles of CRLA lawyer Beaman. She convinced the court not to demolish the farm worker slum. “Just imagine,” she said, “having another exodus of thousands of homeless farm workers.” Thus, keeping Duroville intact served a purpose. The farm workers have a roof over their heads and agribusiness has a steady supply of cheap labor and none of the social stigma associated with exploitation verging on slavery.

I was astonished that the young and innocent-looking Beaman said practically nothing about pesticides, the most persistent deleterious threat farm workers have been facing in their daily work for decades. I asked her to explain. She said she had no data about pesticide effects and neither did she know of any study about pesticides and farm workers in the Coachella Valley. I reminded her of my experience at the EPA and she nodded that, yes, pesticides were everywhere in the farms of the Coachella Valley.

To my dismay and palpable anger, I realized how deep the American malaise is about their “invisible” farm workers. First, they refuse to believe workers who are still treated like slaves are harvesting their food. Second, unless they go out of their way to do so – as Pinkel and her students did – they are not about to see these dark-skinned foreigners picking their food. And, third, the few experts who make a living around the broken lives of farm workers are not entirely honest about what they know. Their salaries come from the government or agribusiness, which, historically, aim to control rather than care for farm laborers.

I asked the young security officer of the NGO managing Duroville to make sense of the crisis around him. He had just given us an overview of the Mexican community living in Duroville. He spoke about petty crime, beatings of women by their men, very little interest in education and the harsh conditions of dire poverty all around him. He said nearly nothing had changed in agriculture since Steinbeck’s book. The “Grapes of Wrath” was not history; it was daily reality for farm workers who harvested the wrath of agribusiness.

Agribusiness likes it that way. It has become the master of rural America without a fight. It sells the illusion of prosperity in rural America almost empty of family farmers. It can appeal to its subsidiary professors at 65 land grant (agricultural) universities to testify that agribusiness means lots of food for America and the world. These professors also bless pesticides and equate them to science.

Now, some 30 years later, in the Coachella Valley, on a hot, sunny winter day, I felt I was time traveling: The farm workers harvesting broccoli and a truck moving very slowly formed a human broccoli machine. They worked fast, each worker doing but one thing and passing the broccoli to the next worker until the vegetable ended in a box on the truck.

The workers looked the same, dressed in the same colors, all Mexicans, all very close to each other, like honeybees. Some gave a glance to the students photographing them but, in general, they ignored everything but their mechanical labor.

The owner of the broccoli farm, some 35 acres in size, was a young man named Steve Powell, executive vice president of Peter Rabbit Farms. I asked him if he ever thought of converting his agribusiness to organic farming practices. He looked at me and casually said I was living in the past. “We can’t do that,” he said. I pointed out that being hooked on pesticides was hazardous to those eating his crops, to farm workers and to himself. He smiled and said the “chemistry” he used was quite specific, targeting destructive insects and harmless to people. And with that, he went to the broccoli machine, grabbed some broccoli and handed them to those snapping pictures.

Pinkel asked Powell pointed, but gentle, questions about his workers. “What workers?” he asked. “The workers you see don’t work for me. I have nothing to do with them. They work for a contractor who harvests my crop. I deal with him, not the workers. Years back, we used to hire about 500 workers, but no longer. Now the contractors are our lifelines in harvesting our crops.”

To see the photo essay for this article, see: Truth-Out.org, “Slave-Like Labor Persists in the Coachella Valley” by Evaggelos Vallianatos, 8 Apr 2011.


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