Saturday, May 31, 2008

Workplace tragedies happen daily. Death at work is more common than death in war in our modern world, and many (most ??) of these deaths are preventable, even though such prevention may seem too costly or too inconvenient for the bosses. Here's a tragic story of one such recent death, courtesy of the United Farm Workers, and the efforts that that union is making to prevent such sad occurrences in the future.
How much is the life of a farm worker worth? Is it less than the life of any other human being?

I need to tell you about a story that will break your heart, and then I need to ask you for help so we can prevent tragedies like this from ever happening again.

I just spoke at the funeral of 17-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez. Maria was working in a grape vineyard outside Stockton during the 1st heat wave of this year. She became ill due to the heat as the farm labor contractor and grower she worked for, like many others, did not provide the protections required by law. (Please read Maria’s story below.)

The death of this young pregnant girl is hard to accept because it did not need to happen.
This is not the first time farm workers have needlessly died from the heat. Ten have died over the last four years.

Three farm workers perished from the heat in summer 2005, when Governor Schwarzenegger issued the regulation to prevent such deaths.

In 2007, 36% of employers inspected by Cal-OSHA were not following the heat regulation, according to a story in the Sacramento Bee. Associated Press just reported that Jimenez's employer, Merced Farm Labor, had been issued three citations in 2006 for exposing workers to heat stroke, failing to train workers on heat stress prevention and not installing toilets at the work site. To date the $2,250 it owes in fines has not been paid, according to the article.
The UFW is sponsoring a four-day pilgrimage in Maria's memory that will begin this Sunday, June 1st from the Lodi church where Maria’s final eulogy was held. Over the 4 days, peregrinos ("pilgrims"-Molly)will walk approximately 50 miles to California’s Sacramento capitol. They will then appeal to the Governor and lawmakers to protect farm workers in the fields and ensure nothing like this ever occurs again.

This pilgrimage will cost at least $36,068 to cover the costs of buses and vans for farm workers, food, housing, and of course cool water for the hot sun. We're asking our internet supporters to contribute 15% of the cost which is $5,410.

Please help. Maria had only one life and now it is gone. This peregrination and the good that can come of it for other farm workers can help affirm that Maria’s life was important and that she didn’t die in vain.

PS: If you live in the area, please join us. Click here for the daily schedule and updates in this life and death issue.
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Maria’s Story
On May 14, the official temperature was 95 degrees; it was even hotter inside the wine grape vineyard owned by West Coast Grape Farming, east of Stockton, where Maria and her fiancé, Florentino Bautista, worked. Maria had been working for nine hours.

At 3:40 p.m. Maria became dizzy. She didn’t know where she was and didn’t recognize Florentino. Maria passed out. Florentino helplessly held her in his arms.

There was no water for the workers from 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. When water arrived, it was a 10-minute walk from where Maria was working, too far to access. There was no shade or training for foremen and workers about what to do if someone became ill from the heat—as required by law.

The foreman came over and stood four or five feet away, staring at the couple for about five minutes. He said, "Oh, that’s what happens to people, but don’t worry. If you apply some rubbing alcohol to her, it will go away." It didn’t. After a number of delays Maria was taken to a clinic. On the in Lodi, the foreman called on the driver’s cell phone and spoke to Florentino. “If you take her to a clinic,” the foreman said, “don’t say she was working [for the contractor]. Say she became sick because she was jogging to get exercise. Since she’s underage, it will create big problems for us.”

They arrived at the clinic at 5:15 p.m., more than an hour and a half after Maria was stricken. She was so sick an ambulance took her to the hospital. Doctors said her temperature upon arrival was 108.4 degrees, far beyond what the human body can take.

Maria’s heart stopped six times in the next two days before she passed away on Friday.
Doctors said if emergency medical help had been summoned or she had been taken to the hospital sooner, she might have survived.

It is hard for Maria’s family and her fiancé, Florentino, to accept her death, knowing it could have been prevented.

Florentino, said, “There should be justice for what happened. It wasn’t just. It wasn’t fair what they did.”

The grief that fills our hearts today inspires our work tomorrow. Your donation today can help us send a strong message to the governor and lawmakers and prevent future tragedies.
News Clips
5/30/06:Sacramento Bee Multimedia presentation of Maria's funeral
5/30/08 Sacramento Bee: Employer of farmworker who died had been fined for violations in 2006
5/29/08 Associated Press: County officials begin criminal probe into farmworker death
5/29/08 Sacramento Bee: Teen farmworker's death, probed as heat-related, stirs outcry
5/29/08 La Opinion: Lamentan muerte de campesina por insolación
To see other news coverage and the eulogy I read at the funeral, please click here.
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