Justice for Farmworkers
Raising Up Farmworkers
After many years of engaging farmworkers in the Central Coast and hearing the stories of extreme overwork, wage theft, and health and safety risks, in 2015 CAUSE surveyed 600 local farmworkers about labor conditions in the fields of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. Survey respondents brought up common issues including underpaid wages, inadequate breaks, health impacts from pesticides, lack of access to clean water and bathrooms and more. Farmworkers face unique challenges in enforcement of basic labor standards, including their precarious immigration and economic status fear of retaliation, insecure seasonal and migratory work, complex layers of contracting in the industry, rural areas’ geographic isolation from legal aid and labor enforcement agencies, and educational and language barriers to reporting workplace violations.
After releasing this report we partnered with local coalition partners including the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), Lideres Campesinas, the United Farm Workers, and more, to organize farmworkers in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties to advocate for our local governments to take action to raise labor standards in the fields. Local farmworkers and advocates shared their stories in community meetings, testified at hearings, and met with county supervisors.
Expanding Resources for Farmworker Labor Protection
After two years of organizing and advocacy from farmworkers and allies, and a year of dialogue and negotiation with key players in the local agriculture industry, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted in June of 2017 to allocate $200,000 create a Ventura County Farmworker Resource Program. An advisory body with both farmworker advocate representatives, appointed by MICOP, and agriculture industry representatives, appointed by the Farm Bureau, oversaw the development of the program, which was publicly launched in 2019.
This first-of-its-kind agency is a central local hub to lift up working conditions in the agriculture industry by addressing the barriers farmworkers face to real protection from existing labor laws. Local policymakers and industry leaders also see the program as helping to address the growing labor shortage faced by the agriculture industry as a result of declining immigration from Mexico and difficult working conditions in the fields, by improving standards to attract and retain workers. The Ventura County Farmworker Resource Program helps farmworkers learn about wage and hour and health and safety laws and their legal rights, works to resolve disputes directly between farmworkers and their employers, and helps farmworkers navigate public agencies and file claims.
The Farmworker Resource Program has two staff members who are both trilingual in English, Spanish, and Mixteco (an indigenous language from Southern Mexico which is the primary language of many Ventura County farmworkers). The team has skills and expertise in engaging directly with farmworkers, as well as technical knowledge of labor law and the ability to conduct conflict resolution with farm owners and build relationships with state and federal labor protection agencies. The program is primarily based in Oxnard in the Ventura County Human Services Agency, which is known to farmworkers who access MediCal and other services, and has satellite locations at HSA offices throughout the county. The program conducts proactive outreach to farmworkers throughout the region about their labor rights and resources available. Farmworkers facing labor violations choose from different options, including direct resolution through a facilitated dialogue with their employer, assistance filing a formal claim with the appropriate government agency, or reporting an anonymous tip about problems in their workplace. The Farmworker Resource Program provides the potential to better meet the needs of farmworkers through greater local accessibility, flexibility, and cultural competency, while leveraging the resources of state labor agencies to raise standards throughout the agriculture industry.
Inspecting Health Conditions in the Fields
Meanwhile in Santa Barbara County, CAUSE is working with the county Department of Public Health to develop a program to improve access to clean bathrooms and drinking water in the fields. We were inspired by a successful model from Monterey County, passed in the aftermath of an E. Coli outbreak in the lettuce industry, which used educational inspections to reduce the rate of violations from 66% to 6% within its first two years. We are partnering with Human Impact Partners, a public health organization providing research support and technical assistance to help develop the program. CAUSE farmworker leaders collected dozens of audits of their own workplaces in the Santa Maria Valley based on the inspection form used in Monterey County to show the need for similar action here.
Unsanitary field toilets is a major issue for farmworkers, but also for public health, as poorly maintained and cleaned facilities can be linked to foodborne illnesses. Lack of adequate access to clean drinking water for farmworkers is also a serious concern, particularly as extreme heat days become more and more frequent. Improving field sanitation improves public health standards for both agricultural workers and consumers.
Addressing the Farm Labor Crisis and the Rise of H2A Workers
Due to a variety of factors, including long-term declining immigration from Mexico, difficult working conditions, low wages, and rising housing costs, agricultural employers throughout California and particularly the Central Coast, are struggling to find workers willing to apply for the jobs being offered. This has led to an over tenfold growth in recent years of the H-2A Temporary Worker Visa Program across our state, which has largely been used in regions like the South and rarely used in California until now. The rapid growth of H-2A is especially concentrated in the Central Coast, with its high housing costs and labor-intensive crops like strawberries and lettuce.
The H-2A program, a modernized evolution of the old Bracero Program, allows growers to hire temporary visa workers who are sent home after the season. As the program continues to expand at a rapid pace, farmworker advocates have expressed many concerns. The control employers have over workers’ immigration visas and the short-term temporary nature of the employment relationship makes workers more vulnerable to mistreatment and less empowered to negotiate for livable wages.
After the Kennedy administration ended the Bracero program at the urging of the UFW, farmworker wages, labor standards, and unionization rates rose significantly throughout the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Migrant labor camps largely disappeared from the fields of California, replaced by long-term resident farmworker families living integrated within residential communities, improving day-to-day life for farmworkers. The H-2A program was created in the 1980’s under the Reagan administration to restore growers’ ability to import temporary workers. While the H-2A program contains more legal protections for workers, the fundamental flaw of the power imbalance faced by temporary visa farmworkers remains the same as the old Bracero program. In 2018, two labor contractors in Santa Paula were indicted in federal court with running a scam to systematically steal a portion of H-2A workers’ wages for several years. A Department of Labor investigation in 2019 awarded nearly half a million dollars in back wages to hundreds of farmworkers, particularly H-2A workers in the Santa Maria area.
Because growers are required to provide housing for H-2A workers, the industry’s rapid shift towards H-2A is creating local controversy about where farmworkers should live. Some growers are seeking to build farm labor camps and other bunker style housing that fits as many workers as possible, as well as convert existing year-round housing stock to temporary H-2A dwellings. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant sentiment has whipped up public opposition to housing farmworkers within our cities. In 2016, farmworker housing under construction in a residential neighborhood of Nipomo was burned down in an act of arson. This anti-immigrant backlash has pushed local growers to explore the option of building H-2A housing on their fields in the county, where workers are kept out of sight and out of mind.
Farmworker advocates, housing experts, and industry leaders agree that farmworker housing is best placed within communities with access to basic amenities and critical public services. H-2A workers are a highly vulnerable population, far away from anyone they know, and thousands of miles from home in a new foreign country. They are entirely are dependent on their employers for housing, food, limited transportation, employment, and their legal status in the US. Isolating temporary farmworkers from access to nonprofit and public agencies, emergency services, healthcare, legal aid, churches, stores, and recreation, puts them at risk of exploitation and cuts them off from a normal life of human dignity outside of work.
CAUSE worked to advocate for the County of Santa Barbara's Agricultural Employee Dwelling (AED) program to prioritize farmworker housing in communities by maintaining oversight of large bunker-style farmworker housing development in the fields of the county. As the City of Santa Maria developed its H-2A housing ordinance, CAUSE also worked to bring together stakeholders to negotiate an agreement that would prevent the loss of existing farmworker housing in the city while ensuring displacement assistance for local community members and farmworkers evicted to convert their housing units to H-2A housing.