Remarks by Arturo S. Rodriguez, President
United Farm Workers of America
Honoring Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez
June 4, 2008—state Capitol, Sacramento
How much is the life of a farm worker worth? Is it less than the life of any other human being?
The death of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez are hard to accept because they didn’t need to happen.
If the labor contractor or grower had provided accessible water and shade;
If the labor contractor or grower had provided paid work breaks when workers felt the affects of the heat;
If the labor contractor or grower had put in place a safety plan—educating foremen and workers about heat illness and when to summon emergency medical help;
If the labor contractor or grower had called 911 immediately after Maria Isabel was stricken instead of letting nearly two precious hours pass before she received medical care;
If the labor contractor and grower had not ignored many of the same legal protections for which citations and fines were issued in 2006 for violating the heat regulation;
If the state had been able to enforce the laws on the books…
Then Maria Isabel might still be alive today.
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Maria Isabel dedicated herself to helping her family. She earned the love of her mother, her brothers and sisters and other relatives, and of the man she loved.
Maria Isabel’s life was worth a lot—and she deserved a lot better treatment than she received at the hands of the labor contractor and the grower.
So this pilgrimage honoring Maria Isabel and the other workers whose lives have needlessly been lost is first and foremost a reminder to the governor, to the Legislature and to the public that farm workers like Maria Isabel are not agricultural implements to be used and discarded. They are important human beings: Important to their loved ones; important because of the work they perform feeding all of us; and important in the eyes of God.
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This pilgrimage is also about what the governor and the Legislature can do to prevent the needless deaths of more farm workers like Maria Isabel.
More enforcement of the heat regulation or the other good laws protecting farm workers isn’t the answer.
The Sacramento Bee reported in 2007 that 36 percent of employers inspected by Cal-OSHA were not complying with the heat regulation. Another story in the Bee last month showed more than half of the employers had no safety plan—the kind of plan that might have saved Maria Isabel’s life.
We all know that even a just law is only a piece of paper unless it can be enforced.
We know there are 600,000 farm workers toiling on 80,000 farms, frequently moving from place to place and victimized by a corrupt farm labor contractor system that shields the wealthy from responsibility.
There has never been adequate enforcement of laws protecting farm workers, under either Democratic or Republican administrations.
This governor issued the heat regulation in 2005, after three previous governors refused to act. Yet Governor Schwarzenegger is well aware of the limits of government. One of those limits is that even legal protections issued by a well-meaning governor mean little if we cannot give farm workers a way to use our good laws to protect themselves.
Our union has always believed that given the chance, farm workers could solve their own problems by organizing themselves and winning UFW contracts.
Where farm workers are protected by union contracts, the laws are honored.
And when growers know it is easier for farm workers to organize and bring in the union, employers are much more careful about obeying the law because they don’t want to give the union an advantage.
So the answer, sisters and brothers, is self-help—making it easier for farm workers to organize so the laws on the books are the laws in the fields. Then more important human beings like Maria Isabel won’t have to die.
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