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Death in the Field

  • An interview with Arturo Rodriguez of the United Farm Workers of America
    By Stefan Christoff
    The Dominion, Canada, June 27, 2008
    Straight to the Source

Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez died in May after suffering a heat stroke while pruning grape vines at the San Joaquin County vineyard in California. Jimenez was a seventeen-year-old undocumented worker who had migrated from Oaxaca, Mexico to work in the United States. She was working in the fields with her fiancé and was pregnant at the time of her death. As an undocumented worker, Jimenez's death points to the often severe realities faced by non-status agricultural workers in the US.

Since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), migration from Mexico to the US has increased dramatically. NAFTA has failed to deliver the economic boom for Mexico that was promised and thousands like Jimenez migrate to the US each year seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

Jimenez's death sparked protest in California, including a caravan from Lodi, CA, to Sacramento, CA, coordinated by the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). Jimenez's death reinvigorated calls for an amnesty program for undocumented workers in the US who often face appalling working conditions that frequently go undetected due to the precarious status of the workers.

Arturo Rodriguez, president of the UFW, spoke with Dominion contributor Stefan Christoff about the recent death of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez and the political movement for regularization of non-status workers in the US.

Dominion: The death of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez has drawn a great deal of attention to the case of undocumented farm workers in the United States. Commentators across the political spectrum are referencing this tragic event. Could you address the specifics surrounding her death?

Arturo Rodriguez: Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was a 17-year-old farm worker who was pregnant while working in the fields in the San Joaquin County Vineyard, working with grape vines. Maria was working in the fields for long, long hours. The employer didn't bring water until 10:30 that morning--work had begun at 6am. Maria had worked for over four hours without any water to drink and on that particular day, the temperatures soared above 95 degrees [Fahrenheit], and in the fields even hotter.

That afternoon, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez collapsed after not having enough water, or having any shade provided and without any sufficient rest. Consequently, Maria fell into a coma. Supervisors took no action, not calling the ambulances, not calling an emergency vehicle, instead putting her in the back of a sweltering van. About two hours later, [they] finally brought her to a hospital where, upon arrival, the doctors pronounced that the body temperature had soared to around 108 degrees.

At this point Maria was admitted to the hospital and over the course of the next days her heart stopped beating a number of times and finally her heart simply stopped beating. Doctors said that there was no real chance to revive her or for her to survive. At this point the family made a decision to shut off the machines that were keeping her alive.

Could you provide a picture of the trek that undocumented migrants are making from throughout the Americas, due to economic factors, to work in agricultural fields in the United States and Canada?

Migration occurs throughout the United States and into Canada. Towns that the workers come from, in Oaxaca or Chiapas in Mexico, have economic conditions that are so bad, so poor, that people are forced to look externally for ways to provide their children with enough to survive in these states.

Often families will pay thousands of dollars to smugglers, known as coyotes, to take people across the borders to a place where another family member is, or a place where they can work as an undocumented labourer where they slowly start working in the field. These people are then indebted to that particular coyote, so they are working first to pay off their debt.

Literally thousands and thousands of people are crossing each day. Estimates indicate that at least five hundred people are dying trying to cross the border each year. People are dying while crossing the deserts, dying from thirst, heat exposure or starvation.

Can you talk about these demands for safety reform within the context of the larger demands for regularization or status for all non-status people or workers in the United States?

Our organization has been working extremely hard for the past decade because we know that Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez isn't an isolated case. In the US, at least 70 per cent of the farm labour force is undocumented. Oftentimes, workers like Maria are abused, or exploited, or mistreated, simply due to their lack of status in the US.

Consequently, we feel that it's extremely important that we change this situation, to ensure that undocumented workers are afforded the same rights as anyone else in the United States when they come to work in this country. A very important part of our work as an organization is to bring about real immigration reform in the US.

Recently we have worked very closely with Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Kennedy and Congressman Howard Berman on a special piece of legislation that would in particular deal with undocumented farm workers in the United States. Through this legislation, farm workers would bring proof that they have worked 150 days over a four-year period. This legislation would then provide a pathway to grant legal status for the workers and their spouses and children in the US.

We continue to work very hard on this legislation, as we think it's the real solution to the current problem. [If the legislation were adopted], farm workers could enjoy the same protection as anyone else and they will no longer be discriminated against.

Do you see a parallel between the recent death of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez and the current position of the US government to not grant farm workers status in the US today?

Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez is one of nine individuals that we know of who have died of heat stress just in California. Multiple other deaths have occurred due to equipment failures, due to heavy use of pesticides, and you can go on from there. The overwhelming majority of these deaths are undocumented people, so we know that these deaths are very closely linked to the legal status of these individuals.

Unfortunately, the legal status of undocumented farm workers needs to change for them to be treated as human beings. This is the reality that we face in the US and we are trying to do everything within our own power to ensure that these changes do come about. So it's of utmost importance for us to ensure that farm workers receive the same type of legal status and protections that any other workers in the US [receive].

Throughout Mexico there has been unrest concerning the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Can you talk about the case of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez within the larger context of NAFTA, which some argue is forcing increased migration of undocumented workers into the US?

Unfortunately, NAFTA hasn't been the solution for Mexico's economic concerns that it was presented as. Many companies went to Mexico looking for a cheap labour supply, [but] once they found a cheaper labour supply in China or other parts of the world, they often abandoned the communities or cities in Mexico where they had set up.

Along the US-Mexico border, near Tijuana [and] other areas, you can often find factories that have been completely abandoned as a result of these corporations finding other locations internationally where they could find a cheaper labour supply, a labour supply they could better use and exploit for their corporate economic benefit.

Many large regions or states in Mexico, for example Oaxaca, were not impacted by any of the proposed economic gains from NAFTA. Oftentimes the areas that NAFTA impacted, in terms of US companies setting up factories along the border regions, are no less destitute [today] as these factories or companies are now leaving.

Today, large, large numbers of people in these states are in situations of unemployment, even homelessness, as they had left their homes in other parts of Mexico and are now stranded without work or opportunity. Oftentimes, the only solution that they had was migration to the US, in order to seek some kind of relief, in order to deal with the economic stress that they were feeling in Mexico.

Profound economic changes that benefit people will never take place unless there is real economic revival within Mexico and across other parts of Latin America. Huge numbers of people are migrating from across the Americas to the US in order to find jobs, basically to find economic relief; this is a real challenge.

Economic stability in Mexico means that people will have self-reliance where they live, an economic situation locally where they can provide for themselves, their families and their local communities.

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