UFW Claims Lax Regulators Let Workers Die

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – California refuses to regulate agribusinesses that let farmworkers die in the fields from heat stroke, the United Farm Workers of America says in Superior Court. Workers are put in the fields without access to shade or water, and heat-related deaths have actually increased since California enacted its “Heat Illness Prevention” regulation in 2005, the UFW says.

     “Since August 2005, when California enacted its Heat Illness Prevention regulation, the number of farm worker heat-related deaths has increased – including six such deaths in summer of 2008 alone,” according to the complaint.
     Workers who suffer from heat-related illnesses are afraid to complain or take a break because they fear they will be fired, the UFW says. When they do get breaks, they are for no longer then five minutes, and if they can get water to drink, it may be muddy, according to the complaint.
     California’s Division of Occupational Health and Safety (Cal-OSHA) is responsible for inspecting job sites and citing employers for labor violations but has repeatedly admitted it falls short and that it is “one of the weakest” state safety enforcement programs in the country, the UFW says.
     In the past 15 years the number of Cal-OSHA inspectors has declined by 35 percent while the number of workers in California has increased by 20 percent, and when employers are cited and fined, the fine is measly and may never be collected, the complaint states.
     In May 2008, 17-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez died after working in the fields with a core body temperature of 108 degrees. Her employer, Merced Farm Labor, had been fined in 2006 for “serious occupational safety violations,” but the fine was never collected and the state never followed up to see if Merced had come into compliance, according to the complaint.
     The UFW and its members say the state is violating its own constitution and Labor Code; they want the state ordered to address its own laws and regulations. They are represented by Bradley Phillips with Munger, Tolles & Olson and Mark Rosenbaum with the ACLU.

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