This Thanksgiving, when our families gather to sit down at the table in gratitude, we owe thanks to the farmworkers in Santa Barbara County who labor long hours in dangerous conditions for poverty wages to put food on our plates.
Families across the country will be able to come together for the holidays and fill their glasses with wine from the vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley and enjoy desserts topped with strawberries from the fields of Santa Maria thanks to the labor of farmworkers in our community. Nearly 20,000 Santa Barbara County residents currently work as farmworkers, and there are more farmworker job openings projected over the next 10 years than any other job category in our county. In 2014, Santa Barbara County agriculture brought in a record $1.5 billion in revenue.
But while the future of agriculture is bright in Santa Barbara County, what does the future look like for the thousands of people in our communities who work in the fields? CAUSE, a local nonprofit advocacy organization, conducted in-person interviews with over 300 farmworkers in Santa Barbara County this summer. Our research showed local farmworkers face extreme overwork, unpaid wages, and health and safety issues like pesticide exposure and lack of access to drinking water.
Farmworkers put in over twice the average hours per week of other workers in Santa Barbara County. Forty-two percent of farmworkers say they never take time off for sickness, pregnancy, family emergencies, or vacations, necessary days off that many of us take for granted. Farmworkers are excluded from federal laws guaranteeing overtime pay after 40 hours a week or eight hours a day, an agreement negotiated in the 1930s by Southern congressmembers who opposed extending New Deal labor rights to black farmhands in the Jim Crow South.
Farmworkers are the lowest paid job category in the county, with an average annual pay of $21,598 for full-time year-round workers in 2014, far less than what is needed to make ends meet in expensive Santa Barbara County. Worse, many farmworkers are victims of wage theft, being paid less than they’re legally owed. One in three farmworkers we surveyed said they had experienced one of three common forms of wage theft, including being paid less than the number of hours they worked or boxes they picked, having to work during their breaks, or doing unpaid work before or after their shift. For a family already earning below the poverty line, being paid less than you’ve earned for your work could make you unable to afford your monthly rent.
Farmworkers experience an overwhelming amount of health and safety issues, with seven in 10 local farmworkers saying their working conditions were dangerous or harmful to their health. Four in 10 Santa Barbara County farmworkers say they’ve had negative health effects from pesticide exposure, which can include breathing problems, skin rashes and sores, eye irritation, and nausea. One in 10 lack readily available drinking water at work, a serious danger in this summer’s record heat. These conditions are even more dangerous for farmworker women, who often work throughout their pregnancies. And although 25 percent said they had been injured at work, 74 percent had received no benefits or compensation, and 73 percent continued working after their injury.
Despite extensive violations of basic labor laws in Santa Barbara County’s fields, few farmworkers ever report to state agencies like the Labor Commissioner or Cal-OSHA. On the rare occasions that farmworkers do file a report, it takes months for their claim to be heard, while they often face retaliation from their employer. Threats of being fired or reported to federal immigration authorities would strike fear in anyone’s heart: they could lose the income they need to support their family or be separated from their family by deportation and never see them again. This culture of fear prevents workers from asking their supervisors for time off when sick or workers’ compensation when injured, and it makes reporting unfair working conditions to state authorities nearly unimaginable.
Let’s all remember that the Thanksgiving feasts we lovingly cook for our families are made possible — literally — by the nurturing hands and strong backs of farmworkers, whether our neighbors here in Santa Barbara County or elsewhere. The least we can do is lend our voices in support of their basic rights and dignity. Farmworkers deserve to live long and healthy lives, to spend time with their own families, and to earn enough to put food on their own tables. Here in Santa Barbara County, we can do better.
Maricela Morales is president of CAUSE, Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy.