Farm workers pick crops with Camarillo Springs Fire in background (photo: Associated Press)
California farmworkers always have to make a choice between their health and their work. It’s the nature of a physically demanding job performed in brutal heat, amid pesticides and other environmental threats.
But smoke and ash swirling about as wildfires swept the Oxnard area of Southern California this past week proved to be too much for a group of 15 farmworkers on Crisalida Farms who sought refuge indoors on Thursday, complaining it was hard to breathe.
That move cost them their jobs, according to NBC Bay Area.
When they returned to work on Friday, management told them they were fired. Although they are not unionized, the workers asked the United Farm Workers to intervene on their behalf. The union did, reportedly arguing that a union rule presents a common sense approach to situations like this: No laborer should work under conditions where they feel their life or health is in danger.
The laborers were offered their jobs back, but by then all but one had traveled up the coast to work on other farms.
The Camarillo Springs Wildfire ended up burning about 44 square miles of land over a week’s time and wasn’t brought under control until rain fell on Monday. On the day the farmworkers fled the smoke, the U.S. government's AiRNOW website, which monitors air quality, designated the area near the fire “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” and said it could be dangerous for young children, older adults and those with lung problems.
Farm owners have been saying for a year that they are having a terrible time finding enough laborers to work in the fields since the U.S. economy tanked, border controls increased and legislation to address issues like a guest worker program stalled. Seldom mentioned by growers, for obvious reasons, is the low pay, 110-degree heat (that is only made worse by global warming) and insufficient resources provided to workers in the field.